September 5, 2010

SAD 12 focuses on students' performance

Superintendent touts model’s success in Alaska

JACKMAN -- When students arrive at Forest Hills Consolidated School on Tuesday, they will be asked to develop a code of conduct for their classrooms.


Any group in Jackman that would like to learn more about Forest Hills Consolidated School’s long-term efforts to switch to a performance-based model of education should contact the school at 668-5291.

It's a small change, but it will represent the school's first collective step toward enhancing student accountability for their own education.

The exercise is part of the school's even larger, long-term goal to require that School Administrative District 12's 170 students from Jackman, Moose River and the surrounding townships learn their material "at an exceptional level" and not simply pass with a C or D grade, said Denise Plante, principal and assistant superintendent.

The effort, which aligns with a learning model championed by the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition, will ultimately change the school's education system to be less about time and more about performance.

Students under the standards-based education model, which is also being developed in Regional School Unit 2 -- which includes Dresden, Farmingdale, Hallowell, Monmouth and Richmond -- advance to the next level when they master material, not when they slide by on a test or reach the end of their school year.

The shift, which will happen over years, will also include ideas from the community. School staff will meet with more than 20 Jackman-area groups in September "to have input from all our community members on the vision of what their perfect school would look like, feel like, sound like," Plante said.

"'Partially meets' is not enough. We have to have proficient or better, or what you might refer to as an 'A, B or not yet,'" said the district's new superintendent, John Davis, who started July 1. Training for staff on the standards-based model began this past week.

Davis, 58, was hired by the Jackman school district specifically because of his work improving a school district in Alaska. Davis required that students in Alaska demonstrate they learned their material, Plante said.

And Davis said he joined the Jackman district specifically because it was already involved with changing the way it educates children. The district began scrutinizing the education model in the spring of 2009.

"I was interested only because the district had already made a commitment to rethinking how they're doing education. If they had said they were happy with the status quo, I would not have been interested," he said. "They've got a good program here, but they also understand that if you're standing still, you're losing ground."

Davis is a former superintendent of the Bering Strait School District in Alaska, which had serious problems, he said. The size of Minnesota, and not entirely connected by roads, it was "beyond rural," Davis said. The district owned a plane.

Children in the district's 15 school sites came from families that spoke native languages and are subsistence hunters.

Between 30 and 40 percent of students were meeting state standards. "I was a struggling superintendent, as there are so many, trying to figure out how to bring about a cultural change and a significant academic change," Davis said.

So he looked for other school districts with similar populations and cultures that were succeeding and discovered the performance-based model of education.

After two years of preparation and training, his district launched the model, and more than 50 percent of students started meeting state benchmarks. Although there was still room for improvement, he said, it was something the district hadn't achieved in at least 30 years.

"American education has got to address the needs of all children and not use excuses for why some children are not being successful," he said. "We can't afford to lose children because they don't fit the model of what we like to teach."

Davis is a one-year interim superintendent in Jackman and doubles as superintendent of the Milford School Department, which is also working toward a standards-based system. He lives in Cumberland.

He started his work in 1976 as a first- and second-grade teacher in a fishing community in Alaska.

He then taught in a one-room high school in Port Heiden, Alaska. It was the community's first high school.

He became a principal and then was appointed superintendent of a district on the Alaskan peninsula Sand Point. He immediately was involved in a three-school-district consolidation process, eventually forming the Aleutians East Borough School District.

"That's when life took a little twist," he said. He took time off to travel, visiting Kenya, Tanzania, the Sudan, Somalia, Thailand, India, Hong Kong and Nepal. He received his doctorate in educational administration at Columbia University in New York and got married.

He worked in New Hampshire for six years as superintendent of Newfound Area School District before returning to Alaska as superintendent of the Bering Strait School District. He came to Maine in 2007.

Erin Rhoda -- 474-9534


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