School reform comes to Maine

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  August 17, 2011

Another potential applicant is the Blue Hill Harbor School, an independent high school Downeast that follows the curriculum designed by EdVisions, a Minnesota-based non-profit educational organization that works with school districts to encourage "project-based learning" and alternative assessment through charter schools. A school focused on the arts may emerge in Portland.

Coming so late to the charter arena offers Maine the advantage of studying and benefitting from established practices. Many of these lessons will be applied in January, when the Maine Department of Education and the legislative committee on Education and Cultural Affairs begin the official rule-making process that will govern Maine's system.

"One of the big lessons learned nationally is that the group that gives the charter [in this case, the state commission described above] has to be a quality organization in itself and play its role responsibly in terms of only authorizing groups that have the capacity to do what they say they're going to do, both academically and financially," says Roger Brainerd, executive director of the Maine Association for Charter Schools. The only appointee to date is James Banks Sr. of Portland, who is presently the chairman of the state Board of Education.

"When you give them a choice that's affordable, it changes the dynamic in a huge way," Brainerd says, suggesting that successful charter schools will spur innovation in traditional schools as well. "There's a tremendous flood of creativity coming out in response to this law. There's a new game in town with charter schools."

Leading by example:Reiche School tries a different approach to reform

Talk about innovation: This fall, in Portland's West End, the Reiche elementary school will become Maine's first-ever teacher-led school.

Starting in September (though they've been hammering out the logistical details for months) Christine Keegan and Kevin Brewster (a special education teacher and kindergarten teacher, respectively) will split administrative duties, working part time as teachers and part time running day-to-day operations at Reiche. Policy and curriculum decisions will be made by committees of teachers and parents; the teacher-led model was approved by 74 percent of teachers and staff this spring.

A group of instructors and parents met no fewer than 32 times in 2010 and 2011, studying how teacher-led schools work in other places like Boston and Denver.

During site visits, Keegan was struck by the "energy in the buildings that we went to and the focus of the students and staff. We didn't know what we'd find — if we'd find anarchy...We found nice, calm places where people were focused on the kids and there was a real community feel."

Keegan thinks this new approach will work especially well in Portland, where "close to every teacher has a master's degree — a lot of really well-trained people who can handle a lot of that decision-making and research around student performance...and curriculum development."

Both charter-school opponents and supporters point to the new teacher-led school model as support for their argument. Opponents: See, look, we can reform without implementing charter schools! Supporters: See, look, we need reform!

We pointed out this irony to Keegan and asked if the charter-school debate had colored the Reiche discussion or decision.

"Not at all," she responded swiftly. "Not once . . . We're totally committed to public school district directives. We weren't creating a new school." And when Reiche students arrive for the first day of school on September 6, "Actually I don't think they will notice anything that's different."

Deirdre Fulton can be reached

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