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Oak Hill Staff Race the Clock Getting Some Students to Graduate Under Proficiency-based Learning

Oak Hill High School Principal Marco Aliberti works with a student in English class as part of a revamped course structure in the school.
Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public
Oak Hill High School Principal Marco Aliberti works with a student in English class as part of a revamped course structure in the school.

Beginning this year, high school freshmen in Maine have to work toward a new kind of "proficiency-based" diploma. Under the new requirement, students must be "proficient" in a number of subjects by the time they reach their senior year. Reaching the standards is a tall order.

This is an installment in an extended series of reports called “Lessons From Oak Hill,” on how proficiency-based education standards are changing the way schools operate, focusing on the experiences of Regional School Unit 4, northwest of Lewiston. In this latest dispatch, Oak Hill High School is now taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to catch students up.

It's tough to describe Derek Cote's job at the school. His technical title is "interventionist." You often see him running from classroom to classroom. He's tracking down students who are behind in their schoolwork. Some could be missing up to half the credits they need to graduate. He says many are dealing with trauma and family issues. For them, homework is a lower priority. Cote's job is to change that.

"It's my job to try over the course of the year to get them from, I hate school, I don't care. To, I still hate school, but at least I care a little," Cote says. "And if you can't just kind of grin and bear it. I have to remind myself that. Believe me. There are days I walk out of here and go, Did I do anything? Did I accomplish anything? You're constantly figuring out, how do I work with each group of learners?"

Cote arrived at Oak Hill about a year ago. Before that, he worked in the district's alternative education program, designed for high schoolers who fall behind or who want a different high school experience. Over the past few years it's been flooded with severely struggling students.

"Kids that are seniors in high school have to graduate in four years and they've only passed one semester of math in the three-and-a-half years."
— Oak Hill High School Principal Marco Aliberti

"Like, we've got kids that are seniors in high school that have to graduate in those four years. And they've only passed one semester of math in the three-and-a-half years they've been here," Oak Hill High School Principal Marco Aliberti says. "That's unacceptable. That can't happen."

Aliberti says these numbers were a wake-up call. Adding to the problem was the state's new proficiency-based diploma law. The law dictates that this year's freshmen now need to reach "proficiency" in a number of subject areas. And it's prompting Oak Hill — and schools across the state — to transform their class structures and support systems to get students to the new, higher bar.

"It means, what are we gonna do?" Aliberti says. "We've got to look at it much earlier. We can't wait until somebody's senior year to start getting three credits of math. It's almost impossible. So you start looking at creating ways of helping students around that. But you've also got to look at your systems to make sure that doesn't ever happen again."

At Oak Hill, the first step starts with data. Every freshmen is tested on short English and math assesments every three weeks. Curriculum Coordinator Kathy Martin says teachers and administrators use the results — plus grades and teacher notes — to figure which students need help.

"We're going to have to make a plan at this level," Martin says. "To make sure we're helping our kids graduate on time."

Holly Couturier, the assistant executive director of the Maine Principals Association, says to make the new diploma system work, this kind of approach is vital from kindergarten through senior year.

"Talking about those kids. Where are they? What's the plan in place to get them to move forwards," Couturier says."Those schools demonstrate the most growth for these kids."

Schools are also building in new support systems to help students catch up. There are now dedicated periods during the school day where students only focus on catching up in math or english. Some have even added catch-up workshops on school breaks or Saturdays.

All of this often requires more resources, such as dedicated English or math teachers to work with struggling students. In Caribou, the district has added four new teachers to a "transitions center." It's essentially a tutoring program inside the high school. And Superintendent Tim Doak says up to half the students are using it.

"Proficiency-based education is the changing nature of running the business of schools today."
— Caribou Superintendent Tim Doak

"It’s the changing nature of running the business of schools today," Doak says. "If we’re going with (proficiency-based education), we're going to have to go with these extra programs to help support kids in a better way than we've done in the past."

At Oak Hill, the approach is to take data and target students with the help of interventionist Derek Cote.

He walks into a pair of freshman English class and grabs roughly ten students, some of whom are reading far below grade level. Then he takes them to another room where they sit in a circle, books in hand, and drill down on specific reading skills. To learn about theme, he starts with songs and picture books before working up to a novel.

But getting through to students is hard. Cote wants them to open their books and look for quotes. But many ignore him. They press him to sing, like he did last class.

"Co-te! Co-te! Co-te! Co-te!" they yell.

"I just don't have time, okay?" Cote tells them. "Come to the Christmas concert. I always perform at the Christmas concert."

Cote says he knows these students deal with a lot. He expects occasional outbursts. But he also needs to see progress. And by the end of the day, he does get there. In the next class, students buckle down. They find quotes and soon even discuss how a character copes with bullying.

STUDENT: "I put, I draw because I want to talk to the world."
"That's great, that's great! Good job," Cote says.

The bell rings. Cote smiles as his students leave.

"So folks, thank you," he says. "Very much. For your cooperation and putting the effort forth. I appreciate it."

Yet when I walk back into Cote's class a month later, I find out the school has revamped its new support system. Administrators say they saw progress in the old model, but they felt pulling kids out of class was wasting valuable learning time. So now, Cote and up to three more teachers stay in the freshman English classes and work with students in small groups.

At first glance, it looks a little chaotic. At any one time, there could be four teachers in the same room, each assisting a different student. Even the school's principal, Marco Aliberti, gets involved. He describes the approach as "all-hands-on-deck."

Aliberti sits down with two kids and coaches them on how to write an essay.

"Okay, so what makes sense to start this paragraph?" Aliberti asks one student as he peers over his shoulder.

"Well, in the middle of his journey, he loses his sister..." the student begins.

"Yeah, excellent. Okay, do it! Do it!" Aliberti encourages him. "You've got this. Awesome, man!"

It's clear that students are getting a lot more one-on-one time with teachers than they did in the past. For example, by the end of English class, with help from Aliberti, this freshman has finished his essay. The student says he never would have accomplished that on his own.

"Before, it was kind of like you sit down at the beginning of class and have to do an essay. And you don't really want to do it. Then you don't do it. And you have to do it at home," he says. "And then now that we're all separated in little groups. It's easier. You write it down, he goes on, moves on. I get it done and have time to spare."

The new changes don't work for everyone. Freshman Sophie Childs says she misses big classroom discussions. She finds the new model a little isolating.

"I don't know. I kind of liked it when half the class was still together," Childs says. "Then the rest of the class, we did our own thing. Now, it's like most of the class, we're separate most of the time.

By the end of the day, some teachers say they're completely drained. But their efforts appear to be paying off. At the beginning of the year, 65% of Oak Hill freshmen weren't meeting the school's English benchmarks. Three months later, some student scores have improved by more than 10% on standardized reading tests. It's a jump that administrators attribute to Cote and the other English teachers who've embraced big changes in their classrooms.

There are three-and-a-half years left until graduation and a lot of hard work left. But Oak Hill's staff say they're hopeful they can get students where they need to be.

Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.