Change, for the better

Author icon: Head shot of Commissioner Stephen BowenDone the right way at these two schools, staff members and students have become convinced of the value of hard changes.

Change is hard. But it’s worthwhile when done right.

That’s a message that rang true recently at two schools I visited at opposite ends of Maine as part of my statewide listening tour.

In Aroostook County earlier this month, I visited Houlton Elementary School, where staff members have turned their school around with the help of the federally funded Reading First Initiative.

The five-year grant started with a requirement that the teaching staff enroll in two university-level literacy courses.

Add to that frequent professional development sessions and regular staff meetings to examine students’ reading performance data and coordinate lesson planning, and you have a recipe for stress.

When I visited Houlton, staff members told me that, at first, there were calls to return the Reading First grant and forget about the initiative.

But five years later, staff members are grateful they stuck with it. And they have the data to prove their effort was far from wasted.

In the southern part of the state a week ago, I visited Massasbesic Middle School, where the paradigm has largely shifted away from the traditional model of letter grades and direct instruction in favor of standards-based education.

The standards-based model allows students to decide largely for themselves how they’ll learn and how they’ll demonstrate to their teachers that they’ve picked up the required skills.

The staff at Massabesic started training sessions three years ago to learn how to completely redesign their classrooms, their instruction methods and their report cards.

Today, their classes look like vibrant workshops where students work at their own pace on projects and consult with their classmates when they need extra help. Teachers help students advance their learning and take advantage of the countless informational resources available to them.

In the coming years, Massabesic High School will begin phasing in standards-based education.

It might be a rough and disruptive transition.

But if the teachers and administrators stay true to the standards-based model and challenge their students to be independent learners, they’ll probably look back in five years and be happy with the result.

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