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Southern Aroostook Math and Science Partnership

What if we could significantly improve our schools with minimal expense to taxpayers? What if we could also provide expert support to our teachers as they strive for excellence in education? What if we could help our kids see the real-world value of understanding math and science? What if we could do all these things starting right now?

These are no longer hypothetical questions. Four local high schools hope to make these visions a reality by partnering with Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle and a Portland-based nonprofit. The new coalition is known as the Southern Aroostook Math and Science Partnership. The four local schools include:

  • East Grand School (EGS) in Danforth
  • Katahdin Middle/High School (KMHS) in Stacyville
  • Southern Aroostook Community School (SACS) in Dyer Brook
  • Region Two School of Applied Technology (Region Two) in Houlton

Coordinating this new coalition is the Great Schools Partnership, a nonprofit organization working to help create "an academically rigorous, equitable, and personalized education system that prepares every student for college, work, and global citizenship."

In June of this year, the Southern Aroostook Math and Science Partnership received a three-year, $200,000 grant from the Maine Department of Education. The purpose of the grant is to strengthen science and math instruction at these schools.

One proposed method for doing so is "Professional Learning Groups (PLGs)." PLGs are teams of educators who share with one another knowledge they have gained through experience and training. The ongoing collaboration fostered by these groups will allow teachers and instructors to tap into a larger pool of collective wisdom to overcome the challenges they all face each year.

The PLGs themselves are part of a larger educational culture called "Professional Learning Communities." The intent is to build a culture of collaboration and collegiality within and among all of the local schools. To further establish this culture, the partnership will host and facilitate eight monthly "Dine and Discuss" evenings, inviting partner teachers and schools together to explore exemplary models for teaching science, math, and technology, as well as welcome guest experts from across Maine.

Throughout the school year, the partner schools will review data collected in their classrooms using a sophisticated internet-based system known as "iWalkthrough." The observations and data will hold a mirror up to each school to show teachers and administrators patterns in the teaching and learning that take place in the classroom. This unprecedented opportunity for self-evaluation will provide important insights for improving performance in the 2009-10 school year. At a three-day Summer Institute immediately after school is out in 2009, SAMSP participants will enjoy the opportunity to work as a regional team on deepening their knowledge and coordinating their curricula.

The SAMSP launched the professional learning group program recently, when a group of teachers and administrators from the three high schools and Region Two met for two days to train as professional learning group facilitators. These facilitators will return to their respective schools and support other math and science teachers in developing PLGs there.

Each participant in the facilitators’ program led discussion exercises as part of their training. These student-focused exercises varied, but each was designed to stimulate new thought about entrenched problems. Each exercise guaranteed that every PLG participant not only had a chance to talk, but was encouraged to share their professional dilemmas and expertise.

The resulting conversations stimulated thought and provided multiple strategies for approaching each issue. The resulting ideas were all focused on providing the spark that would help inspire a student to excel. To the outside observer, the exercises all seemed to provide the teachers with a refreshed outlook on some difficult challenges.

"I knew all this stuff before," said one teacher about the lessons she gleaned from an exercise, "but it never occurred to me to use it in this situation."

Another teacher said: "I think it’s finally sinking in to me that it isn’t about what we teach; it’s about what [the students] learn."

To some, the idea of teachers learning from other teachers may seem to be an obvious approach to improving education. Indeed, collaboration is nothing new in schools. Even so, teachers face daily obstacles when reaching out to their peers.

"Teaching is an isolating profession for the adults," says Craig Kesselheim, a Senior Associate at Great Schools Partnership (GSP) and the Project Director for the grant. "There is only one adult in the classroom all day, and teachers have very little time for each other." Craig should know: before joining GSP he worked as a teacher, a principal, and an assistant professor.

Even when teachers do get together in small groups, they often need to use the time to discuss administrative issues.

The rural nature of most Maine schools adds complications as well. In urban areas, teachers from different schools can more easily gather to exchange ideas, but rural schools tend to be much more isolated. For instance, the nearest physical science teacher to Kate Nigh at SACS is thirty minutes away by car at Katahdin High School. Not only does this kind of isolation make it difficult for specialized teachers to share ideas, it makes it much harder to bring in specialists to talk about new technologies.

This underscores another important aspect of the Southern Aroostook Math and Science Partnership: collaboration among schools as well as within them. "[Cutting-edge mathematicians and scientists] don’t have time to come up to talk to one teacher," says Nigh. "If we can get a group of ten teachers together from different schools, we’re a lot more likely to get [an expert] to come talk to us."

Cross-school collaboration is augmented by participation from Region Two School of Applied Technology, a Career and Technical Education center. This secondary school is based in Houlton, but it offers trade courses in most of its partner schools. Region Two provides vocational training in areas such as Automotive Mechanics, Forestry, Welding, Culinary Arts, and Health Science. Because it provides such hands-on training, Region Two will help its partners incorporate real-life examples of science and math at work.

Mike Howard, Director of Region Two, elaborates on the subject. "Using [state-of-the-art video-conferencing], we can take a science class and show them real-time, real-world demonstrations of math and science at work."

A science class studying internal combustion engines, for instance, could join an automotive mechanics instructor under the hood of a car. Portable equipment allows students a better view of the action than they would have if they were there in person.

The video-conferencing program also includes a library of successful recordings from across the country. A biology class in Maine might therefore be able to observe demonstrations in the redwood forests of California, with an instructor identifying various plants on video.

Howard says the long-distance value of this technology was demonstrated in February with a live hook-up between Houlton and the New York Culinary Institute, facilitated by an instructor in Oklahoma.

Most importantly, however, the participation by Region Two provides high school teachers with information about what kids need to know before they enroll in the technical school. It provides students with examples of math and science at work.

Bo Zabierek of Region Two explains: "A student in an auto body class who wants to do a paint job needs to know the difference between a solution and a mixture. He needs to understand algebra and fractions so that he comes up with paint that doesn’t bubble up." For some students, that kind of tangible example might bring to life a lesson that might otherwise seem to be an exercise in meaningless equations.

In a similar way, Northern Maine Community College will provide guidance and information about what students will need to be prepared for college. Without such school-college coordination, some students have to scramble to fill knowledge gaps when they start college.

David Apgar, principal at EGS, summarizes the purpose of this new partnership. "The overall challenge is to stay on top of the needs of our students academically," he says. "The collaborative environment we create within and between our schools will make a difference."

"After all," he adds. "we’re not in competition with each other. We’re in competition with ourselves to continually improve the performance of our students."

Principal Rae Bates of KMHS is also upbeat about the program’s long-term potential. She says there are two things that give this program extra momentum: "First of all, it’s going to be teacher driven. It’s something they’ve taken on and are willing to do, and it’s teachers who are promoting the change."

Bates laments that on many new data-intensive projects, if teachers have to do all the leg work themselves, the project falls behind because of the never-ending and competing demands of lesson plans, classroom work, and extracurricular activities. "What’s wonderful about this grant is that the onus and responsibility isn’t completely on us. We have the Great Schools Partnership to collect and collate data for us, and that visit once a month is going to keep us moving forward." She believes that this more collaborative culture, once established, will be so helpful that it will continue after the grant is finished.

For more information about the Southern Aroostook Math and Science Partnership, or if you wish to know about starting a program like this in your area, please contact Craig Kesselheim at Great Schools Partnership: (800) 353-1485.


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