Education Commissioner’s visit promotes promising practices at Oxford County schools

Mountain Valley Middle School student Abby LaBrash explains her genetics project to Commissioner Bowen.
Mountain Valley Middle School student Abby LaBrash explains her genetics project to Commissioner Bowen.

SOUTH PARIS – A day after releasing a new school grading system designed to focus on transparency and continuous improvement in schools, Maine’s Education Commissioner toured three Oxford County schools that are embracing new models for educational excellence.

The visit by Maine Department of Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen to Oxford Hills Middle School and Oxford Hills Technical School in RSU 17 and Mountain Valley Middle School in RSU 10 was the latest in his Promising Practices Tour.

Bowen began the tour on Thursday at the Roberts Farm Preserve in Norway, where he talked with Oxford Hills Middle School seventh and eighth graders about the life science and leadership skills they’re developing by participating in the farm’s experiential learning program.

Students from the same school then showed off a new race car they’re constructing at Crazy Horse Racing in South Paris with the help of a professional builder. As the vehicle is being built, so is their knowledge of math, science, engineering and teamwork.

Bowen says that hands-on learning like this helps some students pick up concepts they would have never connected with in the classroom.

“We need to move beyond the status quo, one-size-fits-all models of teaching and embrace student-centered models,” the Commissioner said. “Many Maine schools are doing that. The goal of both the A-F grades and these school visits is to spotlight success stories like this experiential learning program, knowing they can be applied elsewhere with meaningful outcomes for our students.”

Governor Paul R. LePage made reference to that Wednesday when he joined Bowen at the Maine State Library to unveil the new school report cards, which showed a majority of Maine’s elementary and high schools earned an A, B or C.

“You’ll have a student who is struggling with geometry in one classroom and then goes into a workshop at a CTE and is building furniture. Geometry is at the heart of woodworking because of the angles measured and cut,” the Governor, himself a furniture maker, said. “There are great things happening in Maine schools, and we all know every child learns differently so we need to recognize a variety of teaching methods and connect the dots. The grading system allows these schools to be rewarded and have their good work be seen by parents and the community while letting us know about the schools that are struggling so we can help.”

The Governor and Commissioner agree expert educators are able to find the individual hook that gets each child excited about learning. Bowen said he saw that happening in the Oxford County schools he visited and that students there are the better for it.

“One challenge we’re facing in education is balancing rigorous standards with encouraging kids to take ownership of their work,” Bowen said. “If you give students real-world responsibility, challenges become real-world problems that they take an interest in and will learn from.”

Two of the schools on Thursday’s tour were ranked as C schools, and one received an F. With the promising practices they have underway, the Commissioner said he expects their proficiency, progress and ultimately their letter grade will improve. He also hopes other schools take notice of what he saw.

At Oxford Hills Middle School, the administrators and faculty designed a staff room “Data Wall” to keep track of students’ progress. “Teachers are giving up their plan time to formulate intervention plans for individual students, and you can literally see yearly progress as kids’ cards climb up the wall,” Bowen said. “Oxford Hills has crafted a great model that it seems many districts could benefit from.”

Bowen’s Promising Practices Tour will take him to all nine superintendent regions in the state before the end of the school year. For more information, visit www.maine.gov/doe/tour/.

For more information about the Maine School Performance Grading System, visit www.maine.gov/doe/schoolreportcards.