The Takeaway

A short conversation with Gary Smith of RSU 18

Are you glad you undertook the project of implementing a learner-centered education system?

Absolutely. We have worked in an education system that really is not meeting the needs of all students for way too long. With this new type of system, there is the promise that we can move toward a system that makes all students, when they graduate from high school, career- or college-ready.

Given that it's too early for data, what makes you think this system is having a positive impact?

We had two goals in the past year: implementing student voice and choice, and working to make sure students understood their learning goals and why they were learning something.

At this point, it’s the little things that prove we’re doing good work. It’s watching pilot programs that we’ve had in place and watching students –their engagement levels are so much higher. They’re in charge of their learning.

We’ve implemented what I would say is the RSU 18 model, which takes the best of the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition work and good components of the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning model to create a common framework. Those models are research-based and have shown results in other school systems.

Last year I had a noticeable—10 percent or more—drop in the number of student issues that came to me, and I can only attribute this to the fact that students in all our classrooms are more engaged.

What would you do differently?

If we weren’t so resource-constrained, I would try to speed the process up. We’ve been working on this project since 2009-10, when our district was consolidated. We’ve really been working steadily and progressively toward an RSU 18 vision and direction, which focuses on how we can best meet the needs of all kids.

We really did not put a timeline out there, and that was intentional. How a project evolves nowadays can be very organic, and we wanted to leave room for that. And our project has evolved. But I think not putting our timeline out earlier has hurt us in some ways. We are getting a lot of feedback now that we did not do a good enough job communicating. We have the school newspaper, the district’s Messalonskee Messenger, I have a blog and a couple of the school principals have a blog. Versus what we used to do, we’ve done a lot of communication on this. But here is a no-win bar set for communication. We needed to do a significantly better job communicating with all stakeholders and parents.

How have you excelled?

We said, we are going to take a research-based approach to this. We are going to be slow and methodical and take the best things we can find and make a model for RSU 18. We’re going slow in order to go fast—we’re really making sure that we have a good foundation in order to start from. We have done more professional development in these last couple of years. That’s a big investment in time, but I believe it’s going to pay off.

Dealing with organizational change is tough work. Following a more systemic approach to organizational change is definitely the way you need to go through this.

A third thing—this type of change doesn’t happen overnight. You have to be consistent and unwavering—very “this is the direction we’re going.”

We began with, what do we want our school systems to be in our future? We’ve pulled best practices and used best models that are out there and are being successful to create the RSU’s implementation of customized learning for students.

What changes are you seeing in your teachers? Do they support the effort?

I think our teachers understand the district’s direction. I had some indirect feedback from a long-term substitute in one of our schools. He said, “The one thing all the teachers know is where you are trying to go, and that doesn’t happen very often.” I took that as a compliment.

With that said, we have approx 240 to 250 professional teaching staff. If you look at that distribution of teachers, you have the early adopters—the people who have been on-board since day one. Then there’s the middle 50 to 70 percent that just need more information. Then there’s the 10 percent of staff that don’t want any change at all for a multitude of reasons. But we are not trying to solve adult issues here. We are trying to solve student or learner issues. How can we make sure all students graduate, meeting our curriculum and ready to move on?

All folks know where we’re going and how we’re getting there. There’s a very small group of folks who aren’t comfortable with it, but they understand the direction.

What are parents’ reactions?

We probably should have begun communication earlier with parents on a multitude of platforms. There are parents who have had their students involved in pilots, and some of the parents said, “This is wrong—this isn’t the right thing.” A year later, they’re saying, “I understand this now. If you take this away from our kids, I’m going to be upset. I get it.”

There’s a silent middle that are really OK with this change but aren’t vocal. Then there’s a small subset that understands this is a good direction to go, but they feel like we’re going too fast. There’s an even smaller group that thinks this is absolutely the wrong thing to do.

We probably should have started having parent meetings in the fall of last year. As we really finished our strategic plan, and it was adopted by the board, we started having parent meetings to talk about what this was and what it looks like. We had seven to eight meetings before the end of the year. Parents’ feedback was a lot of questions—very good questions.

What differences do you see in student behavior, participation, etc.?

We’re really working on student voice and choice and engagement. When you establish a classroom vision and a code of operation, it’s really cool to see it at the elementary level. They soak this up. A good teacher with good classroom management has this under control—they get their classes organized and working well. I had a conversation with a kindergarten teacher at Belgrade this year and asked her, “Do you find that by having voice and choice, students get down to work faster?” She said, “Absolutely.”

We used to be able to go around to visit all the schools in the district in a day, and that was pushing it. We can’t do that anymore. Students want to talk to you about their learning.

What are the next steps for RSU 18?

We have been getting things ready for our first major implementation of our plan at the PreK-5 level. We’ve been working on communication plans. We’ve just rolled out a new district website, and we’re populating that this summer to improve our communication so we can start populating it with success stories of what we’re doing.

We have two parent meetings planned for August, and those will continue into the fall. We’re focusing on parent communication in a major way about all things going on with this.

It is amazing how much teachers across the district have grown. We have provided the strategic direction and let them loose and said, “You know best how to implement this journey.”

It’s remarkable to see the creativity that came from that—that makes you feel good.

This Center for Best Practice is a collaboration between the Maine Department of Education and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, made possible by the contributions of the Maine schools that share their stories.