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How Five Communities in Maine Reimagined Learning Through Competency-Based Education

Student-centered learning begins with community

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Topics: Education Policy, ESSA, Overcoming Challenges

In 2007, the Governor of Maine proposed consolidating the state’s 290 school districts to approximately 80, hoping for more fiscal efficiency and regional support to improve student outcomes. RSU2 was created out of this initiative, uniting the communities of Hallowell, Farmingdale, Richmond, Dresden and Monmouth. Administrators and community leaders decided to take advantage of the mandate to create the kind of learning community they wanted to work, teach and learn in, sharing what was strongest from each existing district to make the new one the best that it could be.

As they worked together to determine a vision for the new district, they were driven by the knowledge that scores on state proficiency tests didn’t reflect their high graduation rates.

“We were graduating kids who weren’t proficient,” says Matt Shea, coordinator for student achievement at RSU2, and who was a teacher at the time of the district’s creation. “It was so obvious once you started to think about it, that kids could graduate only knowing 70 or 75 percent of the material. That’s not enough.”

Transforming teaching and learning

“Kids could graduate only knowing 70 or 75 percent of the material. That’s not enough.” – Matt Shea, Coordinator for Student Achievement

To change this, the district wanted to become a system of student-centered learning. RSU2 wanted to truly prepare students for college and life, by providing personalized supports and resources, ensuring all students master each standard before moving on to the next, and challenging them to grow beyond the standards and explore unique interests.

Through this kind of personalized, competency-based education system, RSU2 would be able to help students practice essential skills like time management, collaboration, and growth mindset, all while developing personal ownership of their
learning and success.

District administrators and principals convened parents, educators, and community members six times over the course of seven months to talk about how best to serve all learners and create a vision for education in the new district. These conversations were centered around how the children are learning, not what they are learning. What did they want for each and every learner in the new district?

How could they make learning opportunities possible in and outside of school? What could student-centered learning look like? What did a score on a transcript truly reflect?

The ideas that emerged from those meetings were focused not only with ensuring that students were proficient, but that they developed the skills, knowledge, and disposition needed to be successful. The vision crafted from these conversations ensured that classrooms would be centered on what students were learning, not on what teachers were delivering. By the fall of 2011, RSU2 and the five communities they served were ready to move forward with personalized, competency-based learning at all nine schools.

Virgel Hammonds, Chief Learning Officer at KnowledgeWorks, was the superintendent of RSU2 during implementation, and he recalls the weeks they spent with principals and school leaders in the summer before the 2011-12 school year, refining “a different kind of leadership” that would help to empower teachers and students. In a safe environment, they practiced having
the tough community conversations that would come with this kind of systems-level change.

Don’t wait for the community to come to you

“We always made time to answer questions, to highlight the successes in what we were doing and to reflect on opportunities for improvement.” – Virgel Hammonds, Chief Learning Officer, KnowledgeWorks

Just because the community had been a part of crafting the vision didn’t mean that the work of RSU2 administrators engaging their community was complete. Hammonds and his team made a special effort with parents and community leaders
in the first few years. In addition to inviting the community to school board and committee meetings, they went to the big events in town where people were congregating.

“You can’t just expect your community to come to you, you have to go to them and help them see the need to reform,” Hammonds says. “We spent a lot of time in our first two years in church basements, at local theaters, scout meetings and festivals
shining a light on really great learning practices. We always made time to answer questions, to highlight the successes in what we were doing and to reflect on opportunities for improvement.”

Not every conversation was easy, but Shea and Hammonds both could see a shift in the way the new model was perceived, particularly after they began inviting students to the meetings where they were addressing community concerns.

“Parents hearing their kids answer their questions, being able to articulate exactly what they were learning in school and why, was exceptionally powerful,” says Hammonds, who also cites the school leadership councils that brought students into the decision-making process to be a key milestone for success. Students were living the process, and could share questions, validate concerns, and explore with administrators what was working, and where there was room for improvement.

Rick Amero, current principal of Monmouth Academy who was a teacher during implementation, wishes they’d brought students into the conversation from the start.

“They’re the best problem solvers we have,” insists Amero, who remembers vividly the first year of implementation and the need to constantly check and adjust what they were doing, and take however much time was needed to explain proficiency-based education to a concerned parent or student. “If it took two hours to meet with a parent, we were willing to do that. We looked people in the eye and assured them that we were going to do what was best for their child.”

And parents responded. After the first few years of critical conversations, the community began to advocate as strongly for the system as teachers and students. When the district hired their first instructional coach in 2016, parents loved the immediate improvements they could see and asked the district when they could hire another one. When the money for another coach wasn’t in the budget, the community raised it.

“They see the value in what we’re doing now,” says Shea. “They hear it from the teachers. From the community. From their kids.”

Cultivating hope in all learners

“We looked people in the eye and assured them that we were going to do what was best for their child.” – Rick Amero, Principal of Monmouth Academy

Though it was test scores that initially led the district to implement competency-based education, Shea insists that what he’s learned through the process is that it’s not all about test scores.

“A test score doesn’t define who you are,” Shea says. “In the real world, they don’t ask you how you did on the SAT. They want to know, can you do this? Do you have the dispositions and skills necessary to succeed?”

And life-ready skills are what students in RSU2 are cultivating, collaborating with each other and their teachers to continuously improve. Cam Corbin, a junior at Hall-Dale High School, is one of the students responsible for designing the personalized learning plan students use to manage their learning. He and his peers created the platform where students have a page to track each of their classes, their goals, and showcase for their work. Teachers and students alike can use the personalized learning plans to capitalize on a student’s strengths and provide extra support where it’s needed.

“With the personalized learning plans, we’re trying to incorporate something the student likes to do into each of their classes,” says Corbin, who began development of the platform in October 2015 after the school received a grant to work with software development professionals to build it. “My plan is based around math, science and engineering, because that’s my passion. But my plan is going to look different from somebody else’s, who might be focused on music or art. It’s different for every person. That’s why it’s so important.”

When students have the opportunity to connect what they’re learning with what matters to them, they’re able to see why what they’re learning matters and, according to Cam, they find it easier to meet learning targets. They own the process.

Since implementing competency-based education, Shea has seen more RSU2 graduates applying to college than ever before, and applying to better colleges and universities throughout New England and beyond.

They regularly hear back from graduates about what helped to prepare them, and what they would have liked more of, and Shea and his colleagues are constantly seeking to incorporate student findings into refining their system.

“It’s not about what you did in sixth grade or ninth grade, but about getting where you want to be,” said Shea. “The new tagline for our district is ‘cultivating hope in all learners.’ That’s what it’s about.”

For Corbin, that hope translates to confidence in and commitment to his goals.

“I want to take college classes in high school, and I don’t want to wait. I don’t want to be like every other student,” Corbin said, reflecting on his personalized learning plan. The plan is a testament to RSU2’s continued pursuit of refining their student-centered practice, and merely the latest improvement in the district’s journey. “I have my own goals, and my own way to get there.”

Advice for a superintendent – from a superintendent

RSU2’s current superintendent, Bill Zima, knows that the transformation to a personalized learning approach like competency education is a community affair, and that it takes time and dedication – from everyone. “It’s going to take steps to get there,” said Zima. “Don’t rush it.” He offered three key areas of focus for those looking to make the transition.

1. Partner with stakeholders to craft a clear vision and set a realistic pathway for change

While each stakeholder in the school or district’s community – students, parents, teachers, local businesses, civic leaders – may not know all of the details of what it means to run a learning system, it’s important to understand their expectations. Find out what a good school looks like to them, and use that feedback to craft a vision that everyone believes in.

2. Build a culture of continuous improvement and don’t be afraid to fail

Zima stresses how important it is for a district to have a culture and understanding of continuous improvement, and “that teachers have the opportunity to practice and explore and try things and not worry about failing, so to speak.” Because a lesson that doesn’t turn out as a teacher hoped isn’t really failing, Zima said. It’s an opportunity to get feedback from students and improve the outcome next time.

3. Continuously promote the vision and how work fits

Keeping the vision alive and making sure everyone understands how the work you’re doing fits in the vision is the primary role of the superintendent, according to Zima. Because the vision was created in partnership with your stakeholders, it’s important to keep that central.

“Continuously promote the vision everywhere you go…,” he says. “Whenever I meet with parents. Whenever I meet with stakeholders. When I meet with teachers. When I send out messages. Everything I do I tie back to our vision.”