The Widening Circle: Two Years Later at RSU 57

In 2012, the Maine Department of Education’s Center for Best Practice posted The Logical Next Step, a case study of Regional School Unit 57 and their implementation of student-centered learning systems in their Alfred, Limerick, Lyman, Newfield, Shapleigh and Waterboro schools.  In that case study, educators in the district discussed their journey over the past 10 years moving away from a traditional system of schooling.  Two years later, we revisited the district, sitting with Curriculum Coordinator Lori Lodge to catch up on RSU 57’s continued progress.

Revisit the Plan, Widen the Circle
After going through the process of embracing customized learning, RSU 57 has entered a period of far less dramatic shifts that includes a series of pilot programs, course changes and fine tunings that are no less important than the initial big changes.  They had an ambitious plan and are reality-checking it regularly.
“We’ve revisited the strategic plan on a regular basis so we can make sure that the goals and activities we’ve put in there are being accomplished,” explained Lodge.  Also essential has been expanding the circle of those checking the plan and enacting the plan.  As learner-centered education has become the norm of the district, Lodge notes that the entire “administrative team is taking more ownership of some of the pieces.” 
As a district-wide curriculum initiative, much of the work had been initially placed in the Curriculum Coordinator’s lap.  “If you look back on those first strategic plans where you have columns indicating who’s going to accomplish this work and when is it going to get done and what is the evidence… I was the person listed to get things done,” Lodge recalled.  That’s changed.  The workload has been shared, not because of any order or directive, but because of the widening of the circle of the conversation in the district.

Use Data
Having a data set that addresses learner centered education has helped the conversation be meaningful, allowing building administrators to check that “things that need to be done are being done.”  Building administrators, teachers and the district have taken advantage of the RSU 57’s grading software program – Educate – to oversee consistency of implementation, which, the administration discovered, was uneven.  “That realization,” said Lodge, “came when I pulled the data out of Educateat the end of last year, and I put all of the fifth-grade data on a table.  We have five fifth-grades in five elementary schools all going to one school for sixth grade.  So when the data all comes together, are they at least somewhat in the same place?  What we saw was that they were not.”  This led to some hard conversations, but the district was grateful that they had the level of data necessary to prompt them.
A specific area of focus for faculty improvement has been in the grading software.  Educatehas been and continues to be a major engine for change in the district.  The experience of RSU 57 has been that proficiency-based grading software is not enough to force the changes that are desired, but the absence of such software can be a serious barrier.  In the previous year, RSU 57 had introduced the Educatesoftware, and it was used extensively in the K-8 classrooms.  This year, the district is building on that experience and increasing expectations the teachers use the tool with more facility. 
The expectations have gone beyond technical issues, and include matters of best practice.  For example, for the 2013-2014 school year, the district is expecting that teachers will not only enter scores for certain measurement topics as students meet them but they will also enter the student evidence.  In addition, as the parent portal to Educate becomes more active, teachers are expected to regularly clear up their pages and data, so that it is accessible to parents.  To aid in this, Lodge and colleagues have written an in-district guide and reference for Educate.

The High School
Of primary importance for the coming year is the shift into proficiency-based education into the high school.  For the past few years, proficiency-based practice has moved into the high school via pilot teams and early adopting faculty.  In 2012-2013, Massabesic High School had part time faculty coaches.  These were teachers released for a portion of the day to work with other teachers in the building, focusing on proficiency-based practice.  In 2013-2014, by shifting class loads around, they were able to dedicate a full-time position to continued coaching through the year.  “[The coach] will be in and out of classrooms supporting teachers,” said Lodge. “On top of that,  we’ve added two Dean positions, [including one whose] strength is proficiency-based education curriculum and instruction.  They meet with teacher teams and [Professional Learning Communities].”
The goal is for the high school to be ready for the freshman class of 2014, who will be the first to be awarded proficiency-based diplomas when they graduate in 2018.  One aspect that the district is concerned about is the requirement in the law that students have “multiple pathways” in achieving standards.  “We’re still trying to figure that out,” Lodge explained.  “It’s a struggle.  Unfortunately, we’ve had some pretty severe budget cuts so we don’t have staffing we’d like to have to offer different pathways.  We’d like to have a STEM pathway for students.”  RSU 57 does have students attending Sanford Regional Technical Center, and students can take college classes at York County Community College.  Still, the district is only at the beginning of exploring how to leverage these resources to effectively support their proficiency-based model.
An important part of the “multiple pathways” requirement is the idea that learning doesn’t just take place in the school walls.  The Maine DOE strategic plan, Education Evolving, emphasizes “anytime, anywhere” learning and expanded learning opportunities
To start, RSU 57 has been having conversation about students demonstrating proficiency in extracurricular activities.  “Many of the targets,” said Lodge, “don’t need you to be in PE class in order to meet them.  Some of them might be physical fitness goals.  Whether it’s through curricular, extra-curricular, or outside of school altogether – like participating in a dance class – we wanted to design a way for students to meet targets outside of class.” But some pushback arose around this idea.  “There was some concern amongst PE teachers,” she recalled.  “The fear was, ‘You’re doing away with our positions.’  And, no, we’re not.  If we can free [a teacher] up for even one period a day, then that teacher could be the person overseeing the portfolios or plans that the kids have written.  We have no intention of reducing staff, just trying to figure out another way for kids to meet these targets.”
After the initial resistance, certain questions emerged, including: How do you track student performance outside of school?  How do you assure quality of evidence?  Who is allowed to certify that a student’s demonstration meets the learning target?  These are important questions, but they are questions for which answers can be arrived at, and then the answers can be applied to other content areas.  “We’re talking about PE because that’s the most obvious, but we have kids doing this in visual and performing arts – creating art portfolios, playing music, or taking a dance class.  Every content area has outside learning opportunities,” said Lodge.

Logical Next Steps  
RSU 57 will continue to check and adjust regularly, addressing problems as they arise or are foreseen.  At Massabesic, parent communications on the topic have remained largely positive.  Lodge attributed this to the strength of relationships in the district’s K-8 buildings, but also acknowledges that the district has been fortunate.  Still she has been proactive in setting up a parent advisory group for the district, and thinking about educating the wider community.  She recognizes that this kind of change in the high school is typically contentious, and that the district would be smart to get out in front of it.  “What the advisory committee has told me is, ‘we just want to understand.’  And they want to hear from someone who can be trusted to have accurate information, rather than from someone who heard it second hand and then it’s like a game of telephone,” Lodge said.
The process of working with parents has benefitted the district as much as the parents themselves.  “If we’re saying something that’s not clear, then we need to know what parent’s questions are so we can address them with clarity,” she explained.  They are essential part of the district’s forward movement, providing continuous feedback and allowing RSU 57 to figure out where to put its energy, and where to place that logical next step.

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.