Rebirth of a school

“The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress,” — Charles Kettering

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

INVIGORATING CHANGE — English teacher Ian Carlson admits the new learning model has required some adjustments, but he has fully embraced the approach.

Walking down the hallways each day, Principal Ted Finn hears the sounds of change.

Hammers pound as new framework in the front lobby and library take shape.

Saws cut into cement walls.

Jackhammers break apart concrete that has existed for over three decades.

Workers talk about making progress and how physical changes will bring new life to a school desperate for space to meet today’s new educational demands.

Lake Region High School is undergoing a major facelift, addressing various structural deficiencies that have surfaced since the facility first opened its doors in the late 1960s.

But, the “noise” Principal Finn is most interested in comes from the classrooms, where an unprecedented transformation is taking place.

When Lake Region landed on the state’s list of underperforming schools as the result of failing to show improvement in SAT scores over a three-year period, SAD 61 decided the opportunity was ripe to change its course, dramatically.

Embracing 21st Century Learning principles, SAD 61 developed an innovative model that has challenged both teachers and students to look at learning in a different light.

Before, teachers followed a set curriculum, year after year. They “collaborated” with colleagues informally, maybe during a free moment at lunch or after-school. Now, they are part of a “team,” which meets daily to discuss how to integrate current news events and global issues into their lesson plans.

Students no longer sit in rows and listen to long-winded presentations. Instead, they sometimes sit in circles, using critical-thinking and problem-solving skills to either debate an issue or analyze a selected piece of reading.

The educational blueprint is vastly different than what is occurring in most high schools across the state. Finn has spoken to some college officials, who deemed Lake Region on the cutting edge of how education will evolve in the coming years.

This week, Maine’s education commissioner unveiled a strategic plan — “Education Evolving: Maine’s Plan for Putting Learners First” — that mirrors what is happening at LRHS. Primary tenets of the plan call for putting students in control of more aspects of their education, while teachers would be freed up to focus on the individual needs of all students. Another big piece of the plan is to “engage” students.

Moving Lake Region from a “failing” school to one willing to break an old mold and create a new model to address educational needs of a global, high-tech world is a project Finn and his staff have firmly embraced.

By title, Finn is an educator. He has spent his 17-year career working for the betterment of youth. As a teacher, he inspired and motivated students to learn. Later as an administrator at Livermore Falls, Finn accepted the challenge to push the envelope and change a system to improve middle school students’ Maine Education Assessment test scores.

He succeeded, at both.

IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DISCUSSION — Lake Region junior Emma Walker (center, gree shirt) takes part in a team discussion about a World War I. The school’s new learning model places greater emphasis on student involvement in the educational process. (Rivet Photos)

Today, Finn is a builder. Given three years to implement the new learning model and show improvement in SAT scores, Finn fully welcomed the challenge.

“I knew what was happening here, and I wanted to take on this challenge. I believe I, and this wonderful staff here, can turn things around,” he said. “As the top administrator, I am one piece of the puzzle. My job is to get the entire puzzle to come together as one. My first year here was about building relationships with the staff and students. After learning about the school’s culture and chemistry, I made a few subtle changes. Now, it’s time for bigger change.”

Selling the new teaching model to a veteran staff went better than Finn expected. This summer, he and several staff members attended a conference in Nashville, where educators from across the country gathered to learn “what it means to be a 21st Century school.”

“What we heard validated the research we used to develop this model,” Finn said.

Finn sees the new model as a chance to make “relative connections,” be it comparing the U.S. Civil War to the unrest in Egypt to using problem-solving skills to tackle issues like healthcare reform or environmental concerns.

“The world has certainly changed since I went to school,” he said. “So, it is time for education to change. Just as the way things are being done in the real world are different, we need to educate our children differently. We see this time as an opportunity to do something that is cutting edge that will better prepare our children for the challenges of a changing world. If we don’t make these changes, our students will not be on the same playing field as their competition, and we’ll have missed the boat and failed them.”

Finn has three primary goals. First, he wants to see an increase in the graduation rate. Second, LRHS is striving to increase SAT scores. And finally, Finn wants to create a “positive school climate.”

“Teachers, administrators, students and parents — we’re all on the same team. Together, we can make positive change happen,” he said.

The Model

Switching the school year to a trimester format, Lake Region offers “Studios” and “Academies.”

The Studio is for freshmen and sophomores. While traditional topics — math, English, science and social studies, as well as physical fitness, world languages and fine arts — make up the backbone of the underclassmen program, other themes are also explored. They include environmental, civic and global awareness. In addition to their regular studies, sophomores focus on one “theme” — personal finance, health & wellness or design & engineering — each semester.

Academies are designed for juniors and seniors. They include: World Studies, Health & Civics and Design & Engineering. The Academy approach offers a more in-depth study of students’ interests.

Both Studio and Academies integrate 21st Century themes — clear and effective communicators; passionate, self-directed, life-long learners; critical, practical, real-world problem solvers; responsible and involved citizens; collaborative, highly-productive, quality workers; integrative, inventive and informed thinkers.

Adjusting to change

“Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts,” —
Arnold Bennett

Emma Walker of Naples had her doubts about the new curriculum as she started her junior year.

“I was definitely nervous. I wasn’t comfortable with the idea at all. Everything about school was going to change,” she said. “A number of my friends are in the honors program, and we worried about class sizes. We knew we were going to be integrated with other levels, and weren’t sure how that was going to work.”

Knowing Lake Region was rolling out a curriculum that was unique in this state, some students felt they were “guinea pigs.”

“We were worried about being that first class to go through these changes,” Emma said. “We were reluctant about the changes, and would rather have kept things the same.”

After the first week, Emma had a change of mind and heart.

“The curriculum is actually fun. You really get a chance to express your ideas. I like classes where we are more responsible for the work, and figuring out solutions,” she said. “I wasn’t one to always raise my hand to give an answer. Now, put into these types of situations, I want to get involved and say what I am thinking. You have a chance to prepare yourself, so it’s not as intimidating to speak.”

The “situation” was a discussion group, which revolved around a piece of selected reading regarding World War I. A handful of students sat in a circle as the inner group, while remaining classmates occupied desks arranged in a U-shape pattern. While the inner group offered their thoughts about “The Explosion,” a chapter in the book “A Short History of WWI” by James L. Stokesbury, the outer group listened to comments and later offered critiques. They evaluated classmates on who gave the most convincing comments to which student did the best job leading the conversation.

“In every ‘circle’ we’ve done, there are one or two people that really step it up and you’re really surprised because some of them were really quiet last year,” Emma said. “It’s nice to see them come up with ideas of their own.”

When it came time to select an Academy, Emma chose World Studies — “dedicated to inspiring and adventurous young people who have a passion for learning about the larger world on global, economic, environmental and creative levels.”

While the Academy includes core courses in English, history, science and math, along with electives in the arts and foreign languages, team teachers will link content work with “how and why our world operates the way it does” and “how each of us fits into it.”

The theme for this year is, “Who am I?” with a focus on Politics & Society, Agriculture and Energy. Next year, the theme is “What is my Legacy?” with a focus on Conflict & Cooperation, Business & Ethics and Capstone (designing and implementing individual internships or service projects).

The staff includes: Christina Gaumont, who has taught Social Studies at LRHS for the past eight years; Ian Carlson, a seventh-year English teacher; Amanda Hession, a fourth-year Math teacher; Mark O’Connor, a fifth-year science teacher; and Dave Manchester, a long-time LRHS science teacher.

Before students arrive, mini think tanks percolate twice a week amongst Academy team members. Here’s how one morning unfolded:

7:15 a.m. O’Connor plans to use the documentary, “Inconvenient Truth,” and develop a “strong tie-in” between the movie, curriculum and the end-of-the-year project dealing with one’s carbon footprint.

“We can have students relive a clip and concept, and have them write about the importance of the scene,” suggested Carlson, who later told students that if his high school teacher hadn’t challenged him to take an English honors class, he wouldn’t be a teacher at LRHS today.

Another exercise for students to experience “conflict and cooperation in the world” would be to take part in a Model United Nations, where they assume the role of international diplomats and respond to a crisis.

8:11 a.m. After students received a tutorial from Computer Tech Bill Callahan on the use of the school’s electronic mail system (information at their fingertips include daily announcements and “pop ups” reminding them when assignments are due), class members opened their school-provided laptops and worked in pairs answering various questions posed by an Internet website (www.climatecrisis.net) to determine their carbon footprint.

8:45 a.m. Discussion begins on “The Explosion” with the students leading the way, while teachers Carlson and Gaumont listen.

Gaumont praised students for their insightful comments and spirited discussion.

“I am impressed. This is a college-level reading, and you nailed it,” she said. “It was difficult. Through the conversation, you had a better understanding of what was happening. I can see going forward, you will be super impressive.”

Part of the 21st Century Learning approach is to allow students to move into the forefront of the educational process. Students leading the discussion about who was to blame for WWI and why was Germany’s plan destined to fail was just one example of the new approach in action.

10:57 a.m. Emma and other students move to a free period, known as education exploration. With O’Connor supervising the classroom, students can choose to finish class work, read a book or take an online class, including a SAT Prep course.

“I am going to work on a class online because I was unable to take the course last year because of a schedule conflict,” Emma said. “That wasn’t an option before. You can take different languages, etc. We don’t have study halls or special (privilege) anymore. You’re responsible for doing work on your own time. That’s one thing some people have had difficulty with.”

Work in progress

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance,” Alan Watts

No one thought changing a school’s culture and approach would be easy or without some trial and error. Finn admits there have been some logistical problems created by school construction work, as well as some scheduling issues.

And, there continues to be a “feeling out” process on the instruction side.

“You can tell the teachers are working their way through it. Once in a while, they will say, ‘Well, if this doesn’t work, we can change it next semester.’ We’re all figuring this out together,” Emma said.

Entering this year of change, the World Studies team expected major challenges, yet was excited and energized about the prospect of taking one something no else has tried.

“We are planning more classes with less time to prepare and a lot of teachers are teaching new curriculum.  In any given year, this school might see a few new teachers, but the rest of the staff can help the new teachers become acclimated with our school,” Gaumont said.  “This year, it seems everyone is a new teacher to some extent.”

O’Connor sees the planning process as the biggest challenge teachers face.

“The biggest challenge that I have encountered with the changeover is getting ahead with planning. Where this is our first year doing this, we have no resources/successes/failures to draw from. Creating a rigorous curriculum that is relevant and will provide these kids with knowledge that will benefit them throughout their lives, is an extremely challenging undertaking,” he said. “Compounding this problem is the fact that the other teachers that I am teamed with are much like myself in that we are fully committed to the new model and are willing to everything and anything to make it work. The result is seemingly endless hard work.”

Some aspects of the new model have worked well, while others will either need to be “tweaked” or completely revamped.

“What has worked well? Being able to connect with members of our academy every day.  The teachers usually meet in the morning to plan lessons and to discuss issues,” Gaumont said. “We all share students so we are able to get a better picture of our students’ needs.  This also enables us to plan more creative and integrated projects because there are four of us working together, rather than just one teacher.”

She added, “Because this school structure is new to all of us, there are a lot of things that are still changing as we determine what works and what doesn’t. As educators, we want things to be perfect for our students from the start of the year. It is hard to admit to students that we don’t have all the answers. Our students are learning to be flexible.”

Hession has been amazed at the ability of students and staff to “roll with the punches” as they adjust to a new schedule, Academy system and school construction.

“The hardest thing is probably the lack of time. We have developed such wonderful learning experiences for our students, yet planning for their implementation takes additional time above and beyond the normal preparation time,” she said. “Our current schedule doesn’t have enough room for that.”

Carlson says his biggest challenge has been communicating to the public that change can be good and LRHS staff is committed to students.

“I want parents and the community at large to know that despite all the changes to LRHS, the teachers care deeply about the kind of education the young people of our community are receiving,” he said. “This is our community too, and we want our young people to be proud of the education they are gaining.”

He has seen students make solid strides over the first several months under the new model.

“I’m seeing students more engaged in their education than before. Whether it be their written work, conversations, or ideas, my students are coming to school ready to be challenged,” he said. “I’m very, very proud of them.”

Greater collaboration with colleagues, often on a daily basis, has been a major plus.

“I am fortunate to be paired with professionals who are able to communicate, reach consensus and compromise. We are all pulling together and that makes things easier. We may not always agree, but the mutual respect that we have for each other allows us to work through issues and find acceptable common ground,” O’Connor said. “Exploring new ideas and approaches is commonplace and working with bright, motivated and creative people has been tremendous.”

O’Connor likes what he has seen in students’ response to the change.

“I think it is too early to tell what has been the most rewarding aspect. From the limited time we have been doing this, I would have to say that the most rewarding thing has been the willingness of our students to support and participate in the changes,” he said. “Uncertainty can be a huge issue for teens, and our kids have done tremendously accepting and adapting to what we are trying to do.  I am confident that many more rewards and successes are headed our way moving forward.”

If a day brings a certain degree of frustration, the teachers do find reasons to believe that LRHS is on the right track.

“The most rewarding aspect for me has been watching students make connections between the disciplines. We all know that in the real world learning is not compartmentalized as it is in high school, I think students are beginning to see how learning is integrated,” Gaumont said.

Hession knows this new approach can succeed.

“My prior teaching experience was in a small, non-traditional project based charter school in California. I have seen these techniques used and successfully implemented before. I know how students become independent engaged learners as they adjust to this system,” she said. “As I already believe in project-based, integrated education the most rewarding aspect has to be seeing my colleagues begin to believe and buy into the system as they experience success with all levels of students, especially the students who have not been ‘successful’ in traditional classrooms.”

Just as he likes to challenge his students in the classroom, O’Connor sees the LRHS change as a personal and professional test.

“While this year is full of challenges and demands on my own time outside of school, it is by far and away the most intellectually stimulating. I feel as though we are working hard at identifying what skills and knowledge will ultimately benefit these young people after leaving LRHS and throughout their lives. I feel like I get to teach so many of those skills that were not covered overtly in my own education,” he said. “Skills like critical thinking, time management and self-reflection are central in what/how I teach now. The goal (in my opinion) is to get students to be self-directed and aware. Forcing them to reflect on why they may or may not have done well on an assignment or assessment. Getting them to realize that they may not have done a physics problem correctly because they needed more practice is where I am trying to get them. I try to get them to realize that there will not always be a teacher/parent/mentor looking over their shoulder and the burden of improvement lies squarely on their shoulders.”

Teaching in the age of the Internet means that “getting them to be able to access and filter information efficiently and accurately is key — as all the answers are now just a few keystrokes away,” O’Connor added.

Just as Emma Walker found the new learning model “fun” and a fresh approach, Carlson has found the change invigorating.

“I’m coming to school everyday looking forward to working with my students. I’m collaborating with a talented group of my peers. I can’t hide behind a closed door and do ‘business as usual.’ I feel more like the teacher I’ve always wanted to be everyday,” he said.

Building construction certainly added to the confusion and created a variety of difficulties for both staff and students.

“We have classrooms that we can’t open the windows. Some classrooms, all you can hear is the construction outside. It’s a period of change, but we still need to be doing things,” Emma said. “We need to learn to adapt so we can get our work done.”

Plenty of work remains, both on the physical structure as well as the curriculum, but indications at the moment point to a rebirth at Lake Region High School.

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress,” — Frederick Douglass

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