OAKLAND — The Regional School Unit 18 board will hold an emergency meeting Thursday, May 30, to hear parent concerns about a new education system that began last fall in the district’s elementary and middle schools.

The system, mass customized learning, started last fall in the elementary schools in the district’s five towns — Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney and the middle school, in Oakland. The system is set to expand to Messalonskee High School in the fall.

Board Chairwoman Laura Tracy said the transition has caused tension between administrators and the group of parents who requested the meeting, which is at 7 p.m. at Messalonskee Middle School.
Erika Russell, of Sidney, whose son is in eighth grade, said she requested the meeting because parent concerns about the system were not being heard by the board.

“It’s time for the community residents to be heard first hand,” Russell said.

Under the system, a student learns at his or her own pace and advancement is determined by whether a student has mastered the skill, as opposed to the grade-based system most schools traditionally use.

The curriculum — also known as standards-based or proficiency-based — does away with age-based classrooms and the traditional A through F grading system.


Tracy said the board is committed, if not to mass customized learning specifically, then to an educational vision that meets the needs of all students.

“A standards-based model, that’s something that I don’t see us moving away from,” she said.
However, she said, she is open to making adjustments to allow for the best possible version of standards-based learning, one that would garner community support.

Tracy said the board will listen to concerns, but any action won’t come immediately.

Russell said she wants the board to hear about the negative aspects of what she called a year of lost education for the district’s students.

“I want them to hear the parents’ cries the way I have to hear them,” she said. “They have not been getting feedback from the teachers. They have not been hearing from the students. And we plan on sharing that information with them.”

The switch to mass customized learning has been in the works for years, beginning with staff training, then progressing to a pilot program in a couple of elementary school classrooms last year. This year, the expansion into most of the district’s classrooms made it real to many parents for the first time.


Russell said administrators have only been passing along positive information, not complaints, about the system to the board.

But board members said they have heard complaints about the system through emails, calls, letters, smaller meetings, and Facebook, but the emergency meeting is still a good opportunity to hear more.

One board member, Len LeGrand, of Belgrade Lakes, said he’s has confidence in district administrators, but is open-minded about a possible switch away from the new system.

“I, for one, want to hear more from members of the community,” he said. “I’ve heard from small groups from time to time. I’ve read some emails. This meeting is a great opportunity to have more input.”

Tracy said that, since hearing mostly positive feedback early in the school year, “the scales have tipped and there’s a lot more conversation going on on the negative side than the positive side.”

Neither LeGrand nor Tracy would venture a guess as to how representative the comments they hear are of the broader public.


“It’s hard to put my finger on it because there are people who are vocal,” LeGrand said. “I hear those. I don’t hear who’s not being vocal.”

Samantha Warren, director of communications at the Maine Department of Education, said more than half of the school districts in the state have taken steps toward a proficiency-based curriculum, which she said is the foundation of the department’s strategic plan.

Warren said it’s natural that some parents are reluctant to embrace a teaching model that is so different from how they learned.

“We understand transformation takes time, and what we see happening in RSU 18 is a healthy part of that process,” she said. “Instead of retreating, this is an opportunity for the district to explain the value they see each day in the classroom of the personalized, proficiency-based learning model they have embraced.”

Warren said state and community education leaders must step up efforts to spread awareness about the new model.

“Instead of backtracking, they should be outreaching and helping parents and community members understand,” she said.


RSU 18 Superintendent Gary Smith said he would like to find a way to better inform the board about the transition, possibly with regular updates, either during its regular meetings or during workshop sessions.

Smith said he sees this year as a big one in an ongoing, multi-year journey toward an improved classroom environment.

“Some of our initial execution, we haven’t been spot on, and I don’t think you’d expect us to be,” he said.

Smith said he is focused on making continual improvements to the system and that hearing parent concerns is part of that beneficial feedback process.

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

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