Overview & Summary

On a map, RSU 20 has the look of a hub and spoke, with Belfast and Belfast Bay at the center. Its towns Belfast, Searsmont, Belmont, Northport, Frankfort, Morrill, Swanville, Searsport and Stockton Springs thrived as part of the once-booming commercial region defined by the bay and the Penobscot River. Those towns now struggle as the region has taken hit after economic hit over the past two decades. In this way, the towns of RSU 20 and their schools are not dissimilar to many others in Maine.

Over the past decade, the schools that now make up RSU 20 faced individual crises of student achievement. Given the culture of their district and the culture of education at the time, Troy Howard Middle School and Searsport District High School each faced their crises largely in isolation. Even without effective district support, however, these schools, their principals and faculties, were able to craft systems that place them in a good position to face the current district’s shift to proficiency-based/learner-centered education. Three key points emerge from the case studies:

  1. A Sense of Urgency: The enemy of change is not opposition, but indifference. Presented with evidence that their schools were not performing to expectations e.g., not making AYP the leadership chose to use that evidence as leverage for wholesale school improvement.
  2. Strong Building Leadership: The title of this case study is a reference to the Michael Fullan article, “The Awesome Power of the Principal” (2010). As much as the faculties and communities of Troy Howard Middle School and Searsport District High School came together to support and drive the change, all participants in this study acknowledged the transformational leadership of the building principals. It was the principals of the elementary schools of MSAD 34 who came together for their early standards-based work. At times this transformational leadership may have bordered, according to some participants, on authoritarian leadership, but the line between top-down and bottom-up leadership is one that must be explored by each district. In this case study, the locus of transformational leadership was and still is the building principal.
  3. Moral Courage: Building leaders, district leaders, school board, faculty and supporters in the community were able to focus on and articulate the moral imperative behind this change. Gregg Palmer’s four essays, for example, made the ethical case for why this change was necessary, but all faculty were expected to speak to parents and kids on the issue. At Troy Howard Middle School, the conversation was consistently about “the way school ought to be.” Belfast Area High School, beginning this year, is determining its own plan for change.

The experience of RSU 20 has been one of individual schools addressing their individual educational needs. The quality of the leadership and faculties involved allowed these schools to make huge strides early in the process. They suffered, though, from a lack of district support and a lack of a coherent district vision. Now, with the consolidation of RSU 20, the hope is that the schools of the district may come together, sharing expertise and capacity, becoming even more than the sum of their considerable parts.

This Center for Best Practice is a collaboration between the Maine Department of Education and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, made possible by the contributions of the Maine schools that share their stories.