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VIDEO: Despite Local, State Pushback, One Portland School Says ‘Proficiency-Based Education’ Works

Maine Public File Photo

Video By Brian Bechard

This spring, Portland junior Tom Victor found himself in an unexpected location: 300 miles north of his home, outside an empty storefront in Millinocket.

“This is a town I’d only ever pass through on my way to Katahdin,” he says. “I’d never stop or talk to people here.”

Yet that’s exactly what Victor was doing with a team of students from Portland’s Casco Bay High School. As part of a large class project, the school’s entire junior class trekked from southern to northern Maine earlier this year. Their task was to speak with residents of the former mill town — everyone from students and teachers to business owners and town managers — and record their stories as part of a documentary project looking at the town’s past and future.

“It’s been really eye-opening to see how northern Maine lives,” he says, a few minutes after talking with one of the town’s longtime business owners. “I think everyone’s going to come away with this with a better idea of how the other half of Maine is.”

The project is part of Casco Bay’s educational philosophy, termed “expeditionary learning.” The learning style has been instituted in more than 100 schools nationwide since it was developed in the early 1990s. Casco Bay High School instituted the approach when the school formed in 2005.

“At the core of what we do, it’s about kids doing something they thought they never could possibly do, that expands their sense of themselves and their world,” says principal Derek Pierce. “So we do that by challenging students to complete these long-term, interdisciplinary, what we call ‘learning expeditions.’ Sort of long-term projects that involve kids doing real work for a real audience.”

Those “expeditions” are monthslong. In each one, students study a specific topic, like racial justice or Portland’s waterfront. Across classes, from English to science, educators teach their curriculum through those issues, Pierce says.

“And in almost all of these expeditions, kids are developing some new product, or doing a presentation to a public audience, or some kind of performance where they synthesize their learning,” he says. “And hopefully have an impact on the broader community.”

The school’s trip to Millinocket was one such expedition, where students studied the history of the former mill town, and the economics and science of paper, before recording documentary interviews. But the attitude even manifests itself in remedial classes — for students who’ve fallen behind and need to catch up.

In one such class, students spent a week learning equations and theories about physics, then built catapults to test their new knowledge. By the end of the week, students launched weather balloons into space with local researchers.

“The fact that you didn’t demonstrate [proficiency] shouldn’t be punishment,” teacher Anne Loughlin says. “It should be another opportunity to learn. It should be novel, interesting, engaging and memorable.”

Casco Bay staff say this work is possible because they can plan using standards and “proficiency-based education.” Instead of working by themselves in English or math class, teachers say they work together and use the standards to create projects like the documentaries in Millinocket.

“They’re practicing interview skills. They’re setting up appointments with their interview subjects. They’re learning a great deal about the experience of people who are in Millinocket right now,” says teacher Mallory Haar. “And there’s all of these different inputs. It’s not just sitting and reading and identifying. It’s talking to people. Being moved by people. Feeling like you’re part of something real.”

The school says the method has been backed up by a record of success, including a rising graduation rate over the past half-decade and standardized test scores mostly above the state average.

That’s not to say the school hasn’t had its issues, though. Student Luthando Mngqibisa says it was initially difficult to adjust to the school’s proficiency-based grading system, with 3’s and 4’s instead of A’s and B’s.

“When my sister first came home with her report card, my mom and dad were really confused,” he says. “Like, ‘You got a 3 on this assignment. What does that mean?’ They thought it might mean 3 percent. They were really confused.”

Schools across Maine have had trouble, too. Moving to this new grading system wasn’t required as part of Maine’s original proficiency law, but most schools did. Yet the state offered little guidance or resources to districts. The uncertainty left many teachers confused and overwhelmed by this educational style.

Parents worried, too, that the new system of grading reduced student motivation and would potentially hurt their children’s chances in college. Those concerns grew so loud that Maine legislators removed the proficiency-based diploma mandate earlier this year.

And other students in Portland have even fought the change in their own district. In late September, a group of students at Portland’s Deering High School staged a walkout to voice their concerns with proficiency-based education and grading.

So why has Casco Bay succeeded where so many other schools have struggled? Staff say it helps that the school has been proficiency based since it launched in 2005. It’s had time to work out the kinks — to learn what works and what doesn’t. What stands out when you talk with students and teachers is that the focus at the school is never really about proficiency, but on using the system to connect with students and help them learn.

“So just that piece every day, to come together with one another, that ethic is permeated throughout the entire Casco Bay community,” Haar says. “I was so struck by it. It really felt like the students were at home. The relationships between students and teachers were so evidently closer. I never thought I could be as deeply a part of students’ lives, frankly, as I did when I got to Casco Bay.”

Staff also mention the school’s intervention system, which includes three hours of weekly “academic support” time to help students to catch up. Mngqibisa says for him, that support has been crucial.

“I’m someone who likes to keep everything inside,” he says. “I don’t really ask for too much help from teachers. So having the teachers there to help me has made me a stronger person. A stronger student. And it made me feel better about doing the work.”

Originally published Oct. 17, 2018 at 5:59 a.m. ET.