From Rhetoric To Reality

A backwoods school puts a visionary plan into practice

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Tucked in a pocket of small towns on the edge of a long stretch of wilderness, Guilford, Maine, is an unlikely setting for “break the mold” schooling. There are no colleges and universities in all of Piscataquis County, which has an area more than three times the size of Rhode Island. By most accounts, there are almost as many moose living nearby as there are people.

But educators here at Piscataquis Community High School are in the process of throwing out the traditional model of schooling. They are replacing it with the kind of learning environment advocated in Maine's Common Core of Learning, a wide-ranging, 55-page plan, completed in 1990, that establishes 151 goals for student learning. Neither as specific as a curriculum framework nor as sweeping as a vision statement, the document spells out the knowledge, attitudes, and skills students should have when they leave school.

Most schools in Maine are still trying to figure out what the Common Core means to them in practice; after all, it is completely voluntary for districts. But Piscataquis, aided by a sizable private grant, has been busily turning the rhetoric into reality. “What we have done with our curriculum,” says Piscataquis principal Norman Higgins, “is in essence we threw it away.”

In the little more than a year and a half since this small regional high school began remaking itself, it has abolished its system of grouping students according to their ability in traditional academic tracks—college preparatory, vocational, general, and business education. Although the school still maintains accelerated classes in mathematics, English, and science, all students read Shakespeare, study algebra, and take a computer course.

Among other things, the school has also:

  • Formed a steering committee—made up of teachers, the principal, and the custodian—to set the direction for reform efforts.
  • Established “mini-grants” to encourage teachers to plan interdisciplinary teaching units and work in longer blocks of time.
  • Purchased 90 computers for the school's 284 students and gave one to every teacher. Faculty can communicate with one another electronically, and students also take satellite courses beamed from Maine universities.
  • Begun rewriting the school's curriculum to reflect new ideas about content and philosophy.
  • Decided to develop a mastery-based testing system so that teachers can gauge pupils' progress by how well they have mastered their subject matter, rather than on whether they have completed the requisite number of credits. That system, also emphasized in the Common Core, will be in place by 1993.

“For a very backwoodsy kind of place, I think they have instituted one of the best examples of a restructured school I have observed,” says Robert Peebles, a consultant hired to monitor the school's progress.

It helped, of course, that the school has a three-year, $571,000 grant from the RJR Nabisco Foundation's Next Century Schools Program. In fact, the size of the grant and the attention it has drawn to the school have eclipsed the visible role of the Common Core in Piscataquis' reform efforts. Teachers here tend to refer to their efforts as Project 2000, or simply as “the grant.” The funds also have helped isolate the school from some state aid cuts that have impeded efforts by other schools to implement the core.

“There's no question the money has allowed us to do what I would call an accelerated change process here,” Higgins says. “Are we doing things differently because of the money? The answer is no. Without the money would we be eliminating tracking and implementing the Common Core of Learning? Absolutely.”

In this county, providing all students the opportunity to get a solid education and go on to further study may be an economic necessity. Jobs in forestry or in one of the town's three local industries are becoming scarce for students with no postsecondary training. The county's unemployment rate is 50 percent higher than that of the rest of the state, and, with only 4.7 people per square mile, prospects for economic growth are dim.

But, while the changes at the school have been swift, they have not come easily. Teachers who had a lifetime invested in more traditional educational practices were apprehensive of the reforms suggested by the Common Core.

“It's hard to change a style of teaching you've been used to doing for so many years,” says Jody Difrederico, an English teacher. “I think it scared some of the veterans.”

Higgins concurs: “It was really the most painful emotional experience I've seen the school go through in 25 years. Tracking was ingrained, and it was really questionable whether we were going to be able to end it.” There was also a perception, he says, “that the Common Core's a wonderful document, but that it's not the real world.”

As a tradeoff to the teachers, Higgins promised to reduce the average class size at the school from 18 to 14. He also agreed to provide resources for new materials and organized in-service workshops on cooperative learning—a practice in which students are taught in groups of mixed academic ability—and on other education-reform models.

Some of the grant money was used to pay for a three-day retreat for the entire staff at a resort a few hours' drive from the school. Aided by professional consultants, teachers and administrators spent the time learning how to work together and charting the school's own vision for education. Some were also paid stipends to meet over the summer of 1991 to begin rewriting the curriculum.

Teachers weren't the only ones dragging their feet at the beginning; many parents were also leery about the changes. According to Higgins, they were afraid their children would be used as “guinea pigs.”

The principal credits Rusty Sweeney, a 26-year teaching veteran at Piscataquis, with turning the tide of parental opinion. At a community meeting, Sweeney rose and apologized to parents for not having given them the same kinds of educational opportunities the school was trying to put in place now. “There were 75 or 80 people sitting there,” Higgins recalls, “and I caught tears in some of their eyes.”

Nowadays, there is little sign of the upheaval that marked the earlier stages of the school's reform efforts. “You don't hear the negativism in the teachers' room anymore,” says algebra teacher Lisa Martell.

A visit to the school bears this out. Over lunch hour in the staff room, teachers are talking about their team-teaching projects. And after school, eight teachers meet to discuss a project to integrate more humanities teaching into several subject areas—a response in part to the school's poor showing in humanities on state standardized tests.

One teacher shows off what Higgins calls the “heart and soul” of the school's reform effort—its new curriculum. Only about one-third of the way complete, the weighty document includes school and departmental statements on educational philosophy for every subject area. “We took Maine's Common Core and pulled objectives from it to match our subject areas,” says the teacher, Donna Vigue, “but we didn't swallow it whole.”

The document also includes a comprehensive scope-and-sequence guide and syllabi for each subject area. “If you don't know what it is you're going to teach, how you think it's best taught, and what kind of environment you want to teach it in, you're not going to get very far,” Vigue says.

Those involved or familiar with the changes at Piscataquis say it is still too early to gauge the impact of the efforts. In many ways, more traditional classroom practices are still very much alive at the school. In some of the classrooms, for example, students still sit in rows of desks and teachers still lecture from the front of the room—a contrast to the kind of hands-on, group-oriented learning the Common Core advocates.

But Piscataquis' reformers believe they are on the right track. Over the past year alone, the number of students dropping out fell by about one-third. And, in a recent survey conducted by the University of Maine, 98 percent of the teachers at Piscataquis said they liked their jobs.

“I don't think this is a passing fad,” says Sweeney. “I think what we are doing now will be the foundation for our school down the road.”

Vol. 04, Issue 01, Pages 18, 20

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