School academies provide customized learning in Belfast

Students share feedback on Troy Howard Middle School's standards-based system with Commissioner Bowen.
Troy Howard students engage in conversation with Commissioner Bowen about the school’s standards-based academy system.
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When I visited Troy Howard Middle School on Thursday as part of the tail end of my Promising Practices Tour, I was impressed by the school’s two-year academy system that puts students first by placing them in one of three academies based on their learning styles.

Under Principal Kim Buckheit’s leadership, the Belfast school implemented the standards-based academy system to give seventh and eighth graders more control over their learning. The Innovation Academy offers a hands-on approach to those who benefit from project-based learning, the International Academy brings a global perspective to students trying to see the bigger picture, and the Ecology Academy combines experiential learning with the practice of ecological sustainability.

Regardless of their academy track, students are expected to take charge of their learning and integrate school subjects, engaging them in high-level, cross-disciplinary thinking. I watched kids study the Cold War era in social studies and choose how to showcase their learning. They could write a paper, perform a song—I even saw one group filming videos on the topic in their performing arts class. It was clear that these students understood the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement were more than just chapters in their history books; this period of time affected all of society through art, media, science—you name it. That level of interdisciplinary comprehension is a tangible skill these kids will transfer to the real world.

Students told me they are fired-up about having the same teachers during seventh and eighth grade through the academy model. “In our system, you spend two years with the same teachers,” said Malcolm Dunson-Todd, THMS eighth grader. “You learn how to learn from them, and they learn how to teach you.”

Next year marks the first year that sixth graders will be included in the Innovation, Ecology and International Academies, allowing teachers to get to know their students over a three-year span. As Principal Buckheit said, teachers in a standards-based system can be even more learner-centered when they have time to understand their students’ learning styles.

In such a system, students can also verbalize what they need to know in order to meet individual standards. Eighth grader Eilha Charbonnier told me the standards-based grading system empowers her and her classmates to analyze their skill sets. “I like knowing what your [proficiency-based] scores are because you can see your strengths and weaknesses,” Charbonnier said. Students know which standards they have met, and they are able to go back throughout the school year and meet standards they may have missed.

Like many schools I’ve visited across Maine, THMS implemented a proficiency-based academy model by examining the school’s data to inform decisions during the transformation. Using the data, Principal Buckheit uncovered a lack of formative assessment in the classrooms. Formative assessment is a practice that focuses on regularly gathering information that indicates what a student has and hasn’t learned, and allows teachers to tailor their instruction accordingly. The practice is designed for more frequent use than standardized tests, which fall into the “summative assessment” category. At THMS, Buckheit realized that assessments were so far apart that they weren’t informing teachers’ day-to-day instruction, so the staff worked to give students a stronger voice in their learning.

You can learn more about Troy Howard’s shift to standards-based learning by reviewing our recently released case study of RSU 20 in the Center for Best Practice, alongside videos and materials from five other innovative districts in Maine. The Center is a resource to schools as they work with our Department to launch improvement initiatives, including as a result of the findings of the state’s new Performance Grading System. To see the Troy Howard’s school report card as well as other data behind the improved school performance and engagement at RSU 20, visit the Data Warehouse.


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