OAKLANDMore than 200 residents showed up at an emergency meeting of the Regional School Unit 18 board Thursday evening to discuss their views on an ongoing transition to mass customized learning, a new education system.

The meeting was asked for by a group of parents who are opposed to mass customized learning, an education system that does away with many elements of the traditional American classroom model.

Dozens of parents and teachers addressed the crowd to share their own experiences with the system. Most of them were critical of the system, although some said that their children were thriving under the program.

Chris Hopper, of Sidney, suggested a community-wide survey that would measure the level of support and opposition to the learning system.

The parents began the meeting with a lengthy PowerPoint presentation that charged key administrators are not on the same page as the board, or with each other, and that clear benchmarks for the system’s success had not been established.

Areas of concern identified included poor communication between teachers and parents, students who find it hard to get motivated when they are not graded and the number of hours taken from the classroom because of added teacher training.

Parents distributed thick binders to board members that held dozens of letters from parents, teachers and students opposing the system, as well as information they said supported their view.

Erika Russell, a Sidney resident with a son in eighth grade, who was instrumental in making the meeting happen, said she appreciates the value of engaging children as active participants in their own education, one of the advantages touted by mass customized learning proponents. But there’s a drawback, she said.

“I want my children to be heard,” Russell said. “But at the same time, I want my children to be prepared for the real world. I want my children to be able to take direction.”

The meeting was moderated by Tim Russell, of Sidney (no relation to Erika Russell), who cautioned that speakers should be respectful, limit the length of their comments and refrain from personal attacks.

Board member Cathy McKelway said that attendees shouldn’t take the silence of most board members as an indicator that their concerns were not being heard.

“All of the board members who are up here are concerned about these issues being raised and we are raising these questions privately and publicly in meetings with the administration,” she said. “I don’t think there’s anybody sitting up here who doesn’t care.”

McKelway said the level of opposition to the teaching system is difficult to gauge.

“It’s been impossible to know whether this groundswell of information I have received is from a majority or a minority of people,” she said.

The district, which oversees the education of about 3,000 students in Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney, introduced the system to its elementary schools and middle school this year. Administrators plan to expand the program to the high school in the fall.

The system does away with age-based classrooms and letter grades and advances students when they have mastered a subject, has met stiff resistance from some parents, who say their children are being robbed of a quality education.

Mass customized learning meets new state education requirements to move toward the awarding of proficiency based diplomas.

Under the state’s new strategic plan, which was created by legislative mandate, a student earns a diploma by demonstrating mastery of each of a long list of skills, such as multiplication.

The Maine Department of Education points to the district as a model for other schools to emulate during their own transition to the new curriculum.

From the beginning, the district laid out an educational vision that was well-aligned with the state’s vision, according to Samantha Warren, the director of communications for the state education department

After the meeting was scheduled, Warren said it is natural for parents to question an unfamiliar system.

Still, she said, the new system, which a majority of Maine’s school districts have taken steps toward, was designed to give students the skills they need to succeed.

“That’s the foundation this model is built on and so the community conversation here needs to move beyond whether this is really happening, to why this is happening and how this can happen in a way that is best for the district’s students,” she said.

Some parents have said they understand the state is moving toward a proficiency based system, but there are better ways to get there.

The system has also drawn mixed reviews from teachers, which has led to a series of discussions between the district’s teachers’ union and administrators.

Frank Brown, president of the RSU 18 Teacher Association, said the union is concerned about added teacher workloads, teacher morale, the quality of the newly developed curriculum associated with the change,and the speed at which the transition is taking place.’

Shortly after the meeting entered its fifth hour, Russell, the microphone shaking in her hand, broke down in tears as she accused administrators and board members of lying during the meeting. She said an earlier, more promising, teaching system had been abandoned because of personal differences between Assistant Superintendent Linda Laughlin and advocates of that system.

She said she was frustrated after a year of fighting the change, and offended by suggestions that opponents of mass customized learning don’t care about teachers.

“This is not about the principals. This isn’t about the teachers,” she said. “This is about the board and the year, the waste of a year. And the lies. And the lying has to stop.”

Russell said the board should take accountability for its actions.

“I think it’s time to stand up and say ‘we screwed up. This is stupid, we screwed up and it’s time to fix it.’ And I’m done with the lies, and I’m leaving,” Russell said.

After passing the microphone to a board member and as she left the room, Russell noted that, in two weeks, she will have no children in the district. She has said she plans to transfer her son to another school.

“I don’t ever have to look back,” she said. “I’m not doing this for my kids. I’m doing it for yours.”

Shortly afterward, moderator Tim Russell declared the meeting over.

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