Sumner uses improvement grant to its advantage

Sumner Memorial High School overcomes ‘low-performing’ stigma to make major changes, engage students in learning.

SULLIVAN — When Sumner Memorial High School landed on a federal list of 10 low-performing Maine schools, it was a difficult piece of news for the community to digest.

But staff members at the 270-student school in Hancock County have turned the designation into a chance to improve. Already, according to Principal Tom Wissink, some of the changes they’ve made are paying off.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen toured Sumner Memorial High School and learned about the school’s improvement efforts on Monday, the third date of his statewide listening tour.

Sumner’s place on the low-achieving list made it eligible for a $1.7 million School Improvement Grant from the U.S. Department of Education, administered by the Maine Department of Education. The Regional School Unit 24 board accepted the money and hired Wissink as principal. Staff members got to work on an action plan.

At its core, Wissink said, the plan directs staff members to focus on providing students with learning opportunities that interest them.

Ultimately, the school plans to adopt standards-based education, a model that stresses learning customized for each student and requires that students master specific skills before they move onto the next level.

Sumner’s improvement plan assigned the school’s staff members to action teams focused on transitioning the school to standards-based education, forming professional learning communities that allow teachers a chance to collaborate and reflect, and pursuing outside community partnerships that enrich students’ learning.

“There’s a lot going on,” Wissink said.

That also includes three different support options for struggling students: math, English and learning labs that offer students one-on-one instruction and a chance to recover credit from failed classes.

For teachers, the school improvement plan puts an emphasis on frequent evaluations — from impromptu visits from administrators and fellow teachers to more formal sit-ins — as a way to cultivate the best instructional practices.

“It’s not about blame,” Wissink said. “It’s about improving our practice.”

Still, the focus on evaluation is a major adjustment.

“It’s a real culture change for schools,” Bowen said Monday during a meeting with Sumner teachers and administrators. “It’s a hard thing to come in and tell a teacher, ‘You ought to be doing it this way.’”

While Sumner’s turnaround plan took effect only six months ago, Wissink said, it’s already showing promise.

Course failures have dropped by 6 percent, and 91 percent of students who have used the learning lab have succeeded in boosting their class performance.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” Wissink said.

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