At Casco Bay, expeditions foster engagement

PORTLAND – The junior class at Casco Bay High School has spent the past year delving into all aspects of Hurricane Katrina, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and those two disasters’ effects on the people of Biloxi, Miss.

To show for it, the students at the 275-student Portland high school have produced two documentaries and a stack of policy papers that make a variety of suggestions for weaning the United States from its reliance on fossil fuels.

The students’ work was on display June 7 at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies’ gallery in downtown Portland for family, friends and others to see.

The exhibition was the culmination of the junior class’ yearlong expedition – called “In the Black” – in which students decided on a topic and wove it into every facet of their junior-year curriculum.

That meant studying the chemical composition of the oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico, researching the policy implications of reliance on fossil fuels and telling the stories of those most affected by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

It also meant spearheading a $30,000 fundraising effort to fund an April class trip to Biloxi.

“All of our classes are kind of woven together and inter-connected,” student Hannah Smith said June 7 during a visit to Casco Bay by Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen. “We connect together, not only in our studies, but also to our community.”

The experience is typical for students at Casco Bay High School, which opened in 2005 and graduated its third class on June 2. The students who choose Casco Bay over Portland’s two other high schools sign up for the expeditionary model of learning, which emphasizes project-based, interdisciplinary and inquiry-fueled explorations.

“I think it ignites a passion for learning,” said junior Grania Power.

Ninety-nine percent of Casco Bay graduates so far have been accepted to college.

The “In the Black” expedition involved extensive research into the chemical makeup of the oil dispersants released by the Deepwater Horizon spill and into energy policy in Maine and the United States.

By the end of the school year, students had turned out policy papers addressing fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles, hydrogen fuel cells, wind turbine regulations, tax incentives to spur use of biofuels and other energy policy topics.

The class’ documentaries featured class members’ interviews with Biloxi residents during their trip to the Gulf city.

“We all feel that this is what’s right for kids,” Casco Bay Principal Derek Pierce said. Learning expeditions “expand students’ sense of what they can do.”

  • Casco Bay High School students are evaluated using a standards-based system that requires that students master class content before they earn credit. In each course, students have to master 10 to 15 standards based on the Maine Learning Results. Students earn credit if they earn a “3” or above on the four-point grading scale. Casco Bay doesn’t calculate class rank.
  • Casco Bay recently won a $130,000 grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to support the school’s move toward eliminating credit requirements in favor of a fully proficiency-based system that requires that students become proficient in each subject area, rather than spend a designated amount of time studying each subject area. The grant will also pay for the school to develop tools that aid the transition to a proficiency-based system, with the intent to share those tools with other schools looking to make the same change.

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