RSU 18 – Messalonskee & China Schools
Overview and Summary
Regional School Unit 18 is a far-flung district straddling the Kennebec River Valley in central Maine. It was consolidated on July 1, 2009, and comprises Oakland, China, Sidney, Belgrade and Rome. It has a population of approximately 3,150 students, preK-12. The majority of RSU 18’s high school students – numbering 810 – attend Messalonskee High School, in Oakland. High school-age students in China are given a choice of area schools to attend. Since the spring of 2010, the district has been in what the administration calls phase one of a planned implementation of reforms centered on proficiency-based education and customized learning. The purpose of this phase is to “establish strategic direction.” At the time of this writing, spring of 2012, the district is on the verge of entering phase two, or “strategic implementation and organizational alignment.” The goal of phase two is to implement a customized learning model throughout the district. This case study explores how the district has navigated the implementation of this model up to this point. The intended audience of the case study is educators and school leaders who are contemplating making such a move in their own district.
Superintendent Gary Smith and Assistant Superintendent Linda Laughlin have operated from a systems change model based in Schwahn and Spady’s work Total Leader 2.0 (2010). This model argues that successful systemic change is only possible if the district leaders successfully, 1) articulate a compelling purpose for the change, 2) present a concrete vision of the change, 3) create widespread constituent ownership of the change, 4) create constituency/staff capacity for change, and 5) provide tangible and sustained support for change. The work RSU 18 has done thus far – designated as phase one by the district – has been guided by this model. This is evident in five specific ways.
- Vision. While consolidating and then in the year following, RSU 18 went through a thorough Future Search facilitated by consultant Mary Jane McCalmon. This vision established a broader view in which all students “demonstrate mastery of a common set of rigorous standards,” and also affirmed specific implications of this vision. For example, one belief statement read, “We believe students should be grouped by proficiency levels rather than age/grade levels.” Another read, “We believe that school schedules should be flexible, allowing students to learn without boundaries of time or space.”
- Making the Case for Transformation. In the visioning process and in professional development settings (workshops, reading groups, faculty meetings, etc.), the district has used data to make a clear case that the district is not doing as well as it could for all kids. Further, they have regularly stressed the moral imperative of their work. If the district can do better by kids, then it must do better by kids.
- Theoretical Framework. RSU 18 has crafted its own instructional model out of its work with the Reinventing Schools Coalition, Bea McGarvey (author, with Chuck Schwahn, of Inevitable), Robert Marzano (The Art and Science of Teaching), and the experience of its teachers and administrators.
- Building Capacity: Professional Development and Pilots. The teachers and administration of RSU 18 have engaged in an unprecedented amount of professional development over the past two years. Most of this has been through the Reinventing Schools Coalition, but a considerable amount of work has been done with Bea McGarvey and the model of customized learning. Further, McGarvey has been retained to coach a number of pilot programs throughout the district. These pilot programs have helped the district discover unforeseen implications of the customized learning model, but have also allowed the district to spotlight customized learning successes within RSU 18. Even though it is too early to see improvements in test scores, anecdotal evidence of engaged kids guiding their own learning has spread through the district.
- Building Capacity: The Maine Customized Learning Cohort. RSU 18 has played an important role in the establishment and continued work of the MCCL. In collaboration, the MCCL has developed a viable, proficiency-based curriculum that eschews age-based grade levels. The MCCL has used economies of scale to ameliorate the costs of professional development. And they have negotiated cohort alterations to the Educate standards-based grading software, seen as essential for the success of this work.
Throughout phase one, the district has been careful to maintain what might be called an equilibrium of discomfort – not so comfortable that no one sees the need for change; not so uncomfortable that morale suffers. RSU 18 has argued the case for transformation and has worked for three years to create the capacity in the district for that transformation. They have not, however, changed policy or pressed on more controversial areas of the work (high school transcripts, for example). In phase one, they have gotten ready and taken aim. In phase two, they will fire.