A Year of Success and Innovation: Rethinking Responsive Education Ventures in Brewer School Department

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The first round of RREV (Rethinking Responsive Education Ventures) Awardees were announced in August of 2021. RREV is an initiative of the Maine Department of Education, funded by the Education Stabilization Funds through the US Department of Education’s Rethink K-12 Education Models, that bolsters Maine educators’ innovative efforts to support their students with agile, effective, and resilient learning experiences that improve learning outcomes for all students. Now, after a year of experience and development, the Department of Education would like to thank the awardees for their dedication to innovative education and highlight their achievements that have resulted from the RREV contracts over the past year. Continue reading to learn more about the ways in which the Brewer School Department has used their RREV funding this past year.

After a year of remote, online learning, many students and educators were eager to get back inside the classroom. This desire to have in-person learning once again was understood by most people, as online classes made learning harder for many students. However, Superintendent of Brewer School Department (BSD) Gregg Palmer believes that the rush back to the traditional classroom was also a “rush back to marginalization” for those students who felt more comfortable in online classes. “Tradition is a place of safety,” he said, however, some students feel as though the tradition of brick-and-mortar school buildings is far from safe. He, along with Renita Ward-Downer, Director of Curriculum at BSD, recognized that some students need an online alternative.

Nu posterIn August 2021, after receiving their RREV funding, BSD began to offer a remote learning pathway for students in 7th through 12th grades. At first, the intention was for the pathway to be fully online education with limited spots. The students would have access to in-person opportunities for extracurricular activities to ensure students were still able to make meaningful connections with peers and educators. However, the school quickly realized that their enrollment limit was not high enough, as greater need was shown by the number of students registering in the program. The district honored their promise of flexibility, though, and simply increased the number of students able to enroll in the program.

Ward-Downer said their goal with the program was to “truly tailor a person’s education,” and they have done just that. Once students understood that they were able to help define the shape of the program, they began to communicate with the district what they wanted and needed. In the case of many students, this meant not being 100% remote, but rather a mix of in-person and online education. The district, Palmer said, was happy to make this change, as it gives an intermediate option rather than the “all or nothing” structure of classic public school.

Many of the students who have taken advantage of this online option are students who have been chronically absent in the past. Prior to the introduction of this program, the district wasn’t appropriately addressing student needs, Palmer said. Now the district has found that kids who previously had no interest in school want to learn because their needs are being met. One student was consistently truant about a third of the school year prior to COVID, mostly due to anxiety surrounding being in class at school. Since enrolling in the online pathway that BSD has to offer, however, they have not missed a single day of school, and, at the end of the school year, was sad that it was over. The student is excited for the next school year to start for the first time.

Another group of students that found great value in the program were homeschooled students. Many families who switched to homeschooling at the start of the pandemic placed their students back into the public school system because of this program. They found that the online pathway helped relieve family stress while continuing to provide a similar flexibility to homeschooling.

Getting to this level of success wasn’t easy, though. The district had to battle the stigma that comes with online education along with misconstrued perceptions of the work they were trying to do. “The one thing we couldn’t be was afraid of upsetting people or being viewed as not supporting the idea of a full public education program,” Palmer said. If they had, he said, they would’ve opened the door to questions and doubts about what they were trying to do.

Even while they were confident in their work, others found ways to doubt the district. Parents were concerned that students would take advantage of the online program, using it to slack off. Others who provide supports to students including Special Education, were understandably concerned that identified students looking to try the new program might encounter difficulty having all their educational and social/emotional needs met. However, Brewer offered in-person support for these students and monitored how the pilot went for certain students. The results were very positive, with identified students improving their attendance, and all groups are now in support of the online pathway. Ward-Downer believes that “to grow, [we all had to] problem solve together” in order to find the best solution for the kids. Parents and educators alike found that the students in the online program are leaders, taking control of their education. This form of online education, Palmer said, takes a different kind of motivation than a typical public school education, and Ward-Downer added that they ensure their students have balance so they’re not just lying in bed all day. They both agreed that you cannot fake your way through the online pathway the way you might be able to in the back corner of a classroom. The Special Education department found that some of their students have been able to be more successful in the online pathway thanks to anxiety relief and increased flexibility. Since its introduction, the online pathway has continually gained momentum and support throughout both the student body and the community to get to where it is now.

Other districts around the state are noticing BSD’s success, too. Realizing how beneficial the online pathway has been for students in Brewer and how it has lowered truancy, other districts are looking to implement the innovation in their districts as well, and the educators in BSD say they are happy to help. Their goal for the next year, Palmer said, is to work with other districts to build a network of online programs. In true RREV spirit, the district aspires to inspire innovation and collaborate with other schools to provide as many students a chance at success as possible. Once other RREV pilots based off of Brewer’s are established, like Hampden and Bucksport, which have been recently approved, Palmer said he hopes that they will all be able to tap into each other’s different online courses and resources to offer all students a well-rounded education with multiple outcomes.

Martin Mackey, the former RREV Project Director who tragically passed away in April of this year, embodied the RREV spirit: to think and act boldly to meet the needs of students. His passion was to “change lives.” As such, he challenged each and every RREV participant to do just that as they designed pilot ideas that would ultimately have a lasting systemic impact on students.  After 18 months of leading RREV, Martin’s passion had been passed on to almost 200 educators who had participated in innovation professional development. From those educators, 27 Pilot ideas were brought to fruition and have received over $5.7 million in RREV awards. Through their pilot ideas, these educators have pledged to commit themselves to innovation.

The Maine DOE encourages all schools and districts across the State of Maine to learn more about these innovative educators and their RREV pilots through the RREV website and the online RREV collaborative platform known as EnGiNE. It is through EnGiNE that we all hope to continue the Martin Momentum to change students’ lives through innovative and responsive educational programs.