There’s plenty to learn from Sumner

Commissioner Bowen headshot

Author icon: Head shot of Commissioner Stephen BowenLanding on the School Improvement Grant eligibility list can be difficult news to accept. It can also be an important opportunity.

Ten communities across Maine this week are digesting the news that their local schools have landed on a list of 10 schools eligible for federal improvement grants.

This can undoubtedly be difficult news to accept, but it’s important not to dwell so much on how a school landed on the improvement list. It’s more important to focus on the future.

This lesson hit home for me last month when I visited Sumner Memorial High School in Sullivan as part of my statewide listening tour.

When I visited Sumner, staff members told me they were devastated to learn their school had been placed on that grant eligibility list a year ago. But they didn’t let their devastation discourage them.

They charged ahead and put together a school improvement plan that is already starting to show results.

The 10 schools on this year’s School Improvement Grant eligibility list have a chance to do what’s right for their students with a financial shot in the arm from the federal government. That’s what Sumner Memorial High School is doing, and I urge the schools on this year’s list to look to Sumner as a model.

At Sumner, I saw in action the Pathways program, which lets participating students craft individualized learning plans that suit their interests and learning styles.

Pathways students learn by taking courses online, at the high school and in the Regional School Unit 24 adult education program. They earn credit toward their diplomas by taking on challenging, self-designed projects; working toward professional certifications; and accruing experience in the workplace.

If our aim is to keep more students in school, help them meet the standards, and engage them in learning they find relevant, we need to look at programs like Pathways as models for other Maine schools.

Also at Sumner, I heard from teachers who are adjusting to the reality of regular evaluations by administrators and their teaching peers. They discuss those evaluations among themselves and use them not as a punitive measure, but as a means to improve teaching.

Students who are struggling are taking advantage of the one-on-one assistance available to them in the newly formed math, English and learning labs.

And teams of teachers and students are working together to:

  • provide students more of a voice in school affairs,
  • move the school toward a standards-based model in which students pace themselves and individualize their courses of study, and
  • forge partnerships with local businesses to move learning beyond the walls of the school building.

When I visited Sumner, I didn’t see a failing school.

I saw a school where teachers are working hard to reflect on and perfect their craft, with the end goal of holding their students to high standards and helping them achieve great things.

I saw a school that offers us valuable lessons.

In a year, we could be looking to learn from any of the 10 schools on this year’s improvement list.

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