A short conversation with Brian Carpenter of RSU 20
Are you glad you undertook the project of implementing a learner-centered education system?
I greatly am. It’s what we need for the kids. It provides them an opportunity to be successful. The students come to the schools to learn. We try to make sure they’re engaged and responsible for their own learning. They’re coming out of a middle school that’s doing that, so it’s a continuation. The kids are improving, their aspirations are higher, and they’re doing what they need to do to be more successful in schools.
Given that it's too early for data, what makes you think this system is having a positive impact?
I look at the differences in students: their engagement has increased, college acceptance rate is up, and aspirations are higher. It keeps them engaged; that’s the main thing that we find in this program.
Given the chance, what would you have done differently?
I haven’t been doing it long enough to find out what I’d have done differently. It would probably be the professional development. It would have been done quicker and would have moved the teachers along faster. And then we would have probably raised the bar for the students and got the student-centered piece in place earlier. Then we could look at how we expand from there to increase the rigor and engagement.
How have you excelled in this undertaking?
The teachers are all engaged in the process along with the students. It is a process. Change is going to be a process that only some are going to embrace.
The teachers and staff are always looking to improve. They want students engaged, and they’re looking at ways to improve and increase that. That can only lead to more improvement and better performance on the part of the students. All the teachers and staff are still learning how to improve that process, and there’s something new every day to learn or to try.
What changes are you seeing in your teachers and principals?
The principals have provided the professional development that helps teachers establish their standards. Teachers have changed their instruction in the classroom. Students have demonstrated that they’re meeting the standards. Staff is helping students improve in the standards they may be deficient in or may not have met yet, so they can be more successful in the future. Each classroom promotes learning by itself. With that change, the staff has to change. There’s a curve for teacher growth. As they grow, the students grow right along with them.
What are parents’ reactions?
They’re well engaged. They understand what’s going on. They’ve been with us now since elementary school. When we have parents new to the system, principals and teachers communicate with them to get them informed as quickly as possible and answer any questions. Education doesn’t stand still; it’s changing all the time. We’re going to ask more from the students, and parents need to know that right up front. School isn’t the same as when the students’ parents attended. Engagement is the key with authentic application. If we can keep the student engaged and on task, we’re going to prepare them for whatever it is they want to do, whether it is the world of work, post-secondary education; whatever they choose.
What differences do you see in student behavior, participation, etc.?
Student behavior is definitely improved because now they’re there for their own learning. It’s not a teacher just giving it to them. Attendance is up, grad rate is up, dropout rate is down, and that’s because we’ve offered [students] multiple pathways. Students are the primary people in our audience, and we’re trying to meet their needs. If you talk to the students, they can tell you exactly what is expected of them. If we get out of the way, the students could probably tell us how to do it really well.
What are the next steps for RSU 20?
Specifically at Searsport, we’re going to continue improving and having high expectations for students. We need to look at the next step at the high school level to keep students engaged at the highest level possible, whether that be expeditionary learning or another form where students have the opportunity to do different things. [Let’s] make their education relevant and project-based. Let them apply their knowledge in a real world situation so they can apply the skills and knowledge they do have. We’re always evolving, trying something new, looking for change to improve the education for all students and challenge the teachers. Because if teachers and students are not challenged they continue to do what they always did, results will be the same. We have a great teaching corps that supports each other; they’re not afraid to share ideas, roll up their sleeves and go to work.
I’m proud of all the teachers and staff. They’ve done all this work, and they’re being recognized for it. There is no stopping; there is only going ahead. Sometimes that does not take money, just time and effort.
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.