OAKLAND — Messalonskee High School students will continue to receive grade point averages under mass customized learning, despite the fact the learning system usually doesn’t use traditional grades.

The education system, which debuted in the district’s elementary and middle schools this year and will be introduced into the high school in the fall, has generated debate among parents and was the topic of discussion at Regional School Unit 18’s board meeting Wednesday night.

While mass customized learning does not require a grade point average, but focuses on students reaching levels of proficiency in a subject, students at the high school will continue to receive grades, Laura Downing, chairwoman of the board’s educational programming committee said Wednday night.

The number of skills the high school students have mastered will also be tracked and reported, Downing said.

District administrators brought the system to the middle school and elementary schools in the district’s towns of Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney this year.

Superintendent Gary Smith told the board he recently visited three schools as part of a listening tour to gather feedback on the system from students and staff.

Smith offered what he said was his personal assessment of the implementation problems the school has experienced, based on some of the feedback he has heard to date.

He said that an ongoing series of discussions with the teacher’s union, which started as a discussion of teacher concerns with the system, will extend into the fall.

Smith said recurring themes include a need for improved communication on many fronts and increasing the involvement of parents, students and staff.

He said the software system that allows parents to track their progress under the standards must be revamped to make it easier for them to do so. Other suggestions he had included minimizing the amount of time that teachers spend out of the classroom and developing an implementation plan, with specific timelines, that will be shared with the community in a format they understand.

He said he hoped to come back to the board in the future with more specific plans about how to improve implementation.

Erika Russell, who has been an active opponent of the system, said implementation should be halted while it’s being assessed.

“I feel like we are on a jet plane and we are trying to refuel in the air,” she said. “We need to come down out of the air.”

Russell also questioned whether the district would follow through on involving parents in a substantive way.

“We heard a year ago at this time that there was going to be change made. And now we are here a year later and we are hearing the same thing. What committees are going to be established and can we be on them?” she asked.

Because students are learning at their own pace, they are grouped according to skill level, an approach hailed by education leaders, but that renders many traditional classroom elements, such as age-based grades and a grading system, obsolete.

The system has drawn fire from critics on a number of grounds. Parents have expressed opposition to the idea of young children being passed among a group of teachers rather than having a single instructor.

In at least some cases, high achieving students complete all available coursework early, after which they read books or help other students, because they have no more academic work to do.

Administrators told a crowd of more than 200 parents at a special meeting of the board last week that the problem was a side effect of imperfect implementation, which will be addressed as teachers grow more familiar with the new system.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Messalonskee Middle School teacher and co-chairman of the school’s leadership team John Lisa read a letter in which he described himself and a colleague as “enraged” by an anonymous letter distributed to board members that said teachers from the middle school work in a “climate of fear,” afraid to criticize the learning system for fear of being fired.

Lisa described the process by which input was gathered during implementation of the system, and said school Principal Mark Hatch had encouraged teacher feedback. He did cite flaws with the implementation, and said that it would have been better to train all teachers at the same time to help uniformity.

The district has drawn praise from Maine’s department of education for being an early leader in a statewide shift to proficiency based learning, but an organization of parents opposed to the transition have expressed fears that their children are being used to test an unproved system.

Maine Department of Education Communications Director Samantha Warren has said that a majority of districts in the state have taken steps toward the new state standards.

Russell also questioned whether the district would actually follow through on involving parents in a substantive way.

“We heard a year ago at this time that there was going to be change made. And now we are here a year later and we are hearing the same thing. What committees are going to be established and can we be on them?”

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

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