OAKLAND — Parents who have been arguing against a new learning system in Regional School Unit 18 for months have taken their opposition to a new level by starting a petition drive to demonstrate support for their cause.

Organizers of the drive say the petitions will be presented to the school board to protest a system that is in place in the district’s elementary schools and middle school and will move into the high school next year.

Erika Russell, of Sidney, whose son attends Messalonskee Middle School, has publicly expressed concerns since last year, when she first heard about the district’s ongoing plan to use the system, mass customized learning.

Sometimes called standards-based, performance-based, or proficiency based learning, the education system does away with many traditional school elements, such as grouping students into classrooms by age, or giving letter grades based on the percentage of academic material they have learned.

Under the new system, students are given a series of skills, or proficiencies, to master. Only after demonstrating mastery of one skill, such as addition, do they move onto the next, which might be subtraction. Instead of learning alongside students in their age range, they learn alongside students who share the same level of understanding of a topic.

Russell and a group of other parents oppose the system, citing inconsistencies in grading, difficulty finding meaning in their students’ progress reports, and a dislike of the way that elementary students are passed among a group of teachers, rather than just having a single primary instructor.

In recent weeks, Russell said, those who are opposed to the curriculum have gained support.

On Tuesday, when residents came out to vote on the district’s budget in its five towns of Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney, Russell sat at a table, collecting petition signatures.

She said the majority of the people who walked by while she was there signed the petition.

Russell is one of a handful of parents and a couple of their children who have been gathering signatures.

The petition, which Russell said has gathered about 150 signatures from adults and about 150 from students, says, “By signing this petition you support ceasing the implementation of MCL and support further discussion related to the impact of this curriculum on the students and teachers of RSU 18.”

The number of signatures is a small percentage of the 13,830 registered voters and about 3,100 students in the district, but Russell said the effort has only been going on for a few days.

Other signs that dissatisfaction with the learning system extends beyond Russell and her friends include attendance at a recent meeting to discuss the issue, which Russell said drew more than 80 concerned people. The group also maintains a Facebook page with 600 members, although those members are not necessarily from the community or opposed to the system.

Russell and the other organizers have begun gathering letters from parents, fact sheets, and other documentation they plan to present with the petition to the school board. Russell said she has submitted a written request to the district for a special meeting of the board to distribute the packets.

“It warrants a special meeting, with so many concerned parents,” she said. “Then the board can’t limit it to 10 minutes.”

Regional School Unit 18 isn’t the only district moving toward a new education system.

Mass customized learning is the school district’s response to a new set of national Common Core Standards, which have been adopted by 44 states, including Maine.

The Maine Cohort for Customized Learning, which was formed to develop curriculum that meets the new standards, has 12 member school districts that teach more than 25,000, or 13.6 percent, of Maine’s students, according to statistics from Maine’s Department of Education.

State education leaders have said they hope to see full implementation of systems such as mass customized learning at Maine’s public schools within the next 10 years.

Regional School Unit 18 is one of six districts in Maine that received state funding, beginning in 2009, to pursue the learning system.

The others were Farmingdale-based Regional School Unit 2, Gray-based Regional School Unit 15, Jackman-based Regional School Unit 82, the Milford School District, and Waterboro-based Regional School Unit 57.

All of those districts are in the cohort, as are the Auburn school system, Belfast-based Regional School Unit 20 , the Sanford school system, and Unity-based Regional School Unit 3.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
[email protected]

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