Ed Commissioner praises LRHS turnaround

Maine Commissioner of Education Stephen Bowen speaks to Lake Region High School staff, teachers, administrators and students last Friday. (Rivet Photo)

Maine Commissioner of Education Stephen Bowen speaks to Lake Region High School staff, teachers, administrators and students last Friday. (Rivet Photo)

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

Maine’s Commissioner of Education, Stephen Bowen, equated Lake Region’s transformation from a low-performing school to one now considered a “model” across the state as a person pushing a boulder up a hill.

It takes a lot of hard work, determination and persistence to overcome difficulties and obstacles to reach the top.

Lake Region High School, Bowen told staff and students last week, should be very proud of their willingness to take some risks and come together as partners in education to make dramatic changes that have put the school at the forefront of academic success.

Commissioner Bowen visited Lake Region High School and Lake Regional Vocational Center last Friday to explore their project-based academies and new career and technical education facility as part of his Promising Practices Tour.

As with several other recent school visits on the commissioner’s tour, Lake Region High School was designated as underperforming in 2009–10 and applied for and received a federal School Improvement Grant. With the help of that grant and technical assistance from the Maine DOE, as well as a commitment to bold new approaches, Lake Region has made progress in culture and academics.

Commissioner Bowen observed and spoke with students from the school’s nine academies — small educational groupings that explore career possibilities through project-based and traditional learning models. The academies, which are new this year, offer an education program that raises the academic and social skills of students to prepare them for college or the workforce.

The academies — ranging in topics from global studies to visual and performing arts — support the school’s new philosophy: provide a structure that gives students the opportunity to pursue their passions and their interests, while helping them solve 21st-century problems.

“The kids talked to me about how the academies have built community,” Bowen said. “A student graduating this year told me when she was a freshman, she never interacted with seniors. It’s had a really positive impact on the climate.”

“This approach by the academies is the kind of education reform and student-centered program we need more of in Maine,” said Governor Paul R. LePage. “Each time Commissioner Bowen returns from a school and reports on what he’s seeing, I am encouraged for the future of education in Maine. We have great things going on, and I appreciate Commissioner Bowen’s efforts to highlight and share those.”

During “Academy Time,” which takes place every Monday for about two hours, students work on semester-long projects, culminating in a school-wide presentation to showcase each academy’s work. Lake Region’s school board now requires Academy Time as a graduation requirement.

Bowen visited the school’s adjacent career and technical education center, which was completely renovated through the school’s $14 million renovation project. According to LRHS Principal Ted Finn, the relationship between LRHS and the vocational center has never been stronger.

“When kids are encouraged to explore opportunities through CTE and see the training they can get, that’s contributing to our success story,” Finn said.

LRHS also started an extended learning program, called Food for Thought, after school once a week. All students are welcome, whether they need remediation or simply a quiet place to work on homework, and a teacher from each content area is there to offer help.

The community has been very understanding and supportive throughout the transformation process, and Finn believes that support will only increase over the next two years. He likened the school’s transformation to the process of building a house: year one was designing the plan, year two was pouring the foundation, and year three — this year — was framing the structure. Finn anticipates the school will spend the next two years fine-tuning the transformation and finding its groove.

“When the school was identified as a persistently low-achieving school three years ago, it was devastating news,” said Finn. “But the SIG money was a blessing because we were given $1.62 million to reinvent ourselves and make us a 21st-century school.”

Bowen had a chance to speak directly to students during a short assembly at the end of the day, where he congratulated them for their “hard work, and for coming together to engage students and transform your school.”

“I am proud of you — the students, the teachers and the staff — for putting in the hard work up to this point,” SAD 61 Superintendent of Schools Dr. Kathleen Beecher said.

Superintendent Beecher pointed out some of the successes LRHS has realized over the past year, including improvement in the graduation rate from 76 to 91%, increased engagement in the number of students taking elective courses “over and above” graduation requirements and improved test scores.

Finn added that Lake Region SAT test scores improved from being 86th out of 110 schools to 37th as of this school year.

Dr. Beecher also applauded the efforts of the school’s World Quest Team, which won at the state level and will now compete at nationals in Washington, D.C., as well as the Laker girls’ basketball team, which competed in the state championship.

“As a superintendent, I am also proud of the fact that two of our teams — the girls’ basketball team and our ice hockey team — won sportsmanship banners,” she said. “That’s huge that you’re also good sports.”

Dr. Beecher closed her comments by thanking the juniors and seniors for “putting up” with a number of changes over the past two years, from the mess that comes with school construction to adjusting to a new curriculum.

“You’ve kept a positive attitude and have remained flexible,” the superintendent said. “A lot has changed for you, and I am really appreciative of how you have responded. Keep up the good work. A lot of exciting things are happening here at Lake Region High School.”

Commissioner Bowen’s Promising Practices Tour will take him to all nine superintendent regions in the state before the end of the school year. He plans to see the innovative practices schools are implementing that are showing promise and that are helping to forward the priorities in the Maine DOE strategic plan and the Governor’s ABC Plan for education.

When he needs an example as to a school that has transformed itself, taken a few risks and is now a place where other educators want to visit and learn from, Lake Region will be at the top of the list, Bowen told LR students and staff.

“I think you deserve a round of applause, not me,” Bowen said after being introduced by Finn.

Bowen told the audience that, unlike the past, he and members of his department have made a concerted effort to visit Maine’s schools, especially those that are “doing something new, something novel” and take those ideas and share them with other schools.

He marveled at Lake Region’s quick turnaround from a low-performing school, which landed LRHS on the Top 10 list, to a school now recognized for its innovative “Academy” approach to educating.

“You are now a model school, and when we go to visit other schools, we will say, ‘You need to do what Lake Region did,’” Bowen said.

A key to the transformation, Bowen discovered, was the partnership formed between the principal, staff and students.

“Some tough decisions had to be made. You made some big chances. You put some pieces in place that hadn’t really been tried before. You had to overcome some obstacles to make something happen here,” he said. “And, you did it together.”

Talking with students, Bowen learned that not only did the school change its curriculum, it ultimately changed the “climate” of the school.

“In part, it was what the teachers did. In part, it was what you (students) did. You embraced what was happening; you took upon a leadership role; and you took some ownership and responsibility to make this school better,” he said. “You did it. You’ve done a lot to change this school and get to the point you are at now. You deserve a round of applause.”

Bowen admitted getting knocked down and trying to get back up and persevere is difficult.

“You took a pretty good shot a couple of years ago as a school and as a community. It’s not easy to have fingers pointed in your direction as a low-performing school. It’s a tough one to take,” he said. “You as a school and a community had a choice. What do we do when we take one right to the gut? You decided to get up off the mat and do something about it. That’s not easy. It happens in life. We face things that are really rough.”

Bowen spoke about his own life-changing moment. Ten years ago, he was an eighth grade teacher and someone convinced him to run for the state legislature. He campaigned hard, and won by 60 votes. Bowen was re-elected, but then lost a bid for a third term by less than 100 votes.

“At 9:30 or so that night when I learned that I had lost, I decided to drive around and pick up my signs. That was a lot of time inside my car thinking about what had happened. I thought everyone loved me and why they wouldn’t want me to be their state legislator. It was pretty rough,” he recalled. “But, some other opportunities came out of it.”

He worked for a company that dealt with policy research. Eventually, he landed the job as Commissioner of Education.

“What became clear to me is that I would not be here today if I hadn’t lost that election,” he said. “The path would have been very different. I had a decision to make after the election — what do I do? Do I go back and teach or do I do something different? Just like you, I had a choice to make.”

LR students and staff faced the question, “What are we going to do with this school?”

“You guys worked together and made a tremendous transformation,” the commissioner said. “You went from a school nobody wanted to compare to, now to a school that is a model across the state that everyone wants to know more about. You should be very, very proud. Congratulations.”

 

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