Hands-on learning a success in Oxford County

Eighth grader Ken Stump shows Commissioner Bowen a solar panel they created to heat the indoor greenhouse at Roberts Farm in Norway.
Eighth grader Ken Stump shows Commissioner Bowen a solar panel Oxford Hills Middle School students created to heat the indoor greenhouse at Roberts Farm in Norway.

I had the chance visit three Oxford County schools yesterday as part of my Promising Practices Tour, just a day after releasing the new A-F school grading system designed to improve transparency. As a state, we need to move beyond the one-size-fits-all models of teaching and embrace student-centered models like the ones many Maine schools, like the ones I visited in Oxford County, are doing. Governor LePage and I made reference to that Wednesday when we unveiled the new school report cards, which showed a majority of Maine’s elementary and high schools earned an A, B or C.

In RSU 17, more than 60 Oxford Hills Middle School students are enrolled in the school’s recently expanded experiential learning program, which unites learners through student-focused, nontraditional methods of instruction. Administrators and teachers have identified students who may benefit from the engagement of hands-on learning, and students apply to follow particular experiential tracks, from robotics to community service.

Middle schoolers Ken Stump and Chelsey Lavertu showed me around Roberts Farm Preserve in Norway, where they spend part of the school week building leadership and natural science skills in the outdoors. OHMS students have constructed and planted raised garden beds and greenhouses, allowing them to study pollution, temperature, construction, scientific experiments—you name it, they’re learning about it in a real-world setting that’s resonating with them.

At Roberts Farm, students are able to take on adult responsibilities in a career field that piques their interest. In fact, some kids will soon work with older farm volunteers to write new software for their plant-growing system. Let me reiterate—that’s 13- and 14-year-old students writing software programs! Oxford Hills is proving that STEM learning can and will happen outside the classroom walls.

I spoke with another group of Oxford Hills students who spend time at Crazy Horse Racing, learning the ins and outs of the stock car racing business while gradually building their own racecar to compete this summer. Governor LePage visited Crazy Horse Racing last year to witness the students’ progress on this two-year project and to congratulate them on their accomplishments. As the students build the vehicle, they’re also building knowledge of math, science, engineering and teamwork. They understand that if they mess-up the construction, that could be someone’s life on the line—and suddenly it’s a real-world problem that these kids really care about. By allowing students to explore career interests while in middle school, Oxford Hills is introducing them to the concept and many benefits of career and technical schools at an early age.

Students Anthony Whitman (left) and Austin Canning, of Oxford Hills MS, working on their racecar at Crazy Horse Racing.
Students Anthony Whitman (left) and Austin Canning, of Oxford Hills MS, work on their racecar at Crazy Horse Racing in South Paris.

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. OHMS received a C through our new performance grading system, but I saw firsthand that the school has many promising practices already underway, and I expect the school’s proficiency, growth and ultimately letter grade to improve. This year staff implemented a “Data Wall” to track student progress, and teachers surrender their plan time to formulate intervention plans for individual students. You can literally see kids’ yearly progress as their data cards climb the wall. The high school these students will attend plans to continue the project with next fall’s freshmen, using the same data cards the middle school created. If this works out, you could see a student’s yearly progress from sixth through twelfth grade by graduation time. I’d like to see other schools, as well as our staff at the Maine DOE, using a similar visual model to track progress of all our students and our schools.

I also visited Mountain Valley Middle School, part of RSU 10 in Mexico, to see classrooms that are just starting to apply the mass customized learning (MCL) model. The school was labeled a Continuous Improvement Priority School in 2012, and administrators and faculty have since developed plans for an academic turnaround. Now a boy who struggles in math can learn at his own pace through the MCL model; he doesn’t feel like other kids are waiting for him, and he can focus on himself and how he learns best.

Mountain Valley teachers expressed frustration about their school’s grade, and I assured them that a low grade does not negate all the good work they’ve been doing. Governor LePage and I released these grades so parents and community members have a better understanding of where their schools stand academically. I can tell that MVMS teachers are doing many of the right things to get kids invested in their learning, and over time I believe their grade will reflect that. In the meantime, the Department will be increasing its support to struggling schools while doing more to promote best practices already in place. Additionally, the LePage Administration’s budget proposal includes $3 million to be allocated for improvement initiatives.

As I continue my Promising Practices Tour, I’ll be posting more practices that stand out on the Tour website. Check out our Center for Best Practice website for additional ideas.

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