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After A Year Of Traumatic Events, Oak Hill Is Optimistic About Proficiency-Based Diploma System

Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public
"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.

Over the course of the past school year, we've followed the implementation of Maine’s proficiency-based diploma law through the lens of students and staffers at Oak Hill High School, near Lewiston. 

In the series "Lessons From Oak Hill," Maine Public followed the school's approach to meeting the law's requirements that students meet proficiency requirements in subjects including math, English and science in order to receive a diploma.

The school has made progress over the past nine months, but continues to confront issues that reach far beyond school walls.

Derek Cote arguably has one of the most difficult jobs at Oak Hill High School. He was brought in last year to serve as the school's "interventionist."

"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,'" he says.

In the fall, Cote was working with small groups of freshman English students — many two or three grade levels behind. Getting them caught up is hard work. Instead of getting out their books, the students chanted and pleaded for Cote to play his guitar instead.

"Come on Cote, get up!" the students pleaded, chanting out Cote's name.

"I'm sorry," the teacher told them. "I've really got to do this," he says, and eventually the students grow quiet.

Eventually, Cote would get them back on task, and by the second semester he was visiting math classes, too.

Often, the work is more pep talk than algebra lesson.

"I want to punch myself in the face, I swear," one student tells him as she works her way through an Algebra problem.

"You're fine. You're fine!" Cote replies. "This just takes some review. You got this!"

This intervention process can often be slow and time-consuming. But Cote understands. He says the kids are often dealing with issues that stretch far beyond the school walls.

"There are kids who don't have internet access at home, and won't," he says. "We have kids dealing with abandonment. Living with aunts, uncles, grandparents. Dealing with substance abuse. Trauma. You name it."

In early May, trauma affected the entire school when an Oak Hill student died by suicide. A few weeks later, threats forced the school to close down.

One senior, named Raven, says the threats left her confused and scared.

"You get home, and you think about it, and it's like, what if it did happen?' she says. "I mean, it's emotionally draining when it happens all the time."

Staff took action. They brought in counselors to talk with students, and principal Marco Aliberti says learning basically came to a halt.

"To ensure that people are in the right place," Aliberti says. "Because it affected everyone. It affected everyone in this building. Everyone in this school community, in some way, shape, or form."

"We just wanted to make sure our students were safe,” says Cote. “And let them know that we are here, we care, and if you can, and if you are ready, let's try to do some work.”

For some students, the school's new intervention system is what pushed them to keep going. Raven says there were times that she just wanted to quit. But she says having a teacher like Cote to talk with one-on-one made a big difference.

"He said, 'It's hard, but you'll get through it,'” she recalls. “He talked about what he went through and what we went through. We knew that we weren't alone with it."

By the end of the year, students still had to take standardized tests, and staff braced themselves, expecting negative results. But the percentage of students who were deemed proficient in math and English largely held steady from Winter to Spring. It was a surprising, mostly positive result,says Aliberti, made possible in part by the system of emotional and academic support.

But no one is necessarily celebrating. Most teachers I talked with told me that this year was one of their hardest.

While Cote says he's proud of what the school has accomplished, "my fear is that people are going to start getting a little burned out. Because the expectations for teachers are significant," he says. "And you're not dealing with products. You're dealing with these kids' lives. This kids are going to go on and become our workers and leaders. That's a lot of pressure!"

Across Maine, teachers have expressed similar worries about their own workloads under proficiency-based diplomas. It's a big reason why legislators recently passed a bill that wouldeliminate the diploma mandate, though it's yet to be signed by the governor.

But at Oak Hill High School, the mood is more optimistic. Administrators say the new intervention and support systems have already led to positive results. And even if the mandate goes away, many staff hope to stay the course on proficiency-based education.

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