OAKLAND — Administrators said they will come up with a plan to address problems affecting the transition to a different learning system at Regional School Unit 18, but parents opposed to the system said the transition should wait until the problems are solved.

Mass customized learning, which aligns with new state proficiency-based standards, began in the lower grades in the district’s towns of Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney last year.

Students who complete eighth grade this month will become the first high school students to be taught under the system this fall.

While meeting late Wednesday night, the school board directed Superintendent Gary Smith to present the plan in seven weeks.

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

It was the first board meeting since an emergency session last week that had been requested by parents opposed to the system. During that meeting, Smith said he would give the board more frequent and more detailed updates about implementation.

Smith identified recurring themes in the negative feedback, including a need for improved communication on many fronts and increasing the involvement of stakeholders, including parents, students and staff members.

He said the software system that tracks students’ progress needs to be revamped so parents understand their growth more easily.

His other suggestions 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 an easily understood format.

He said his recommendations were preliminary, and that he hoped to come back to the board later with more a more specific plan about how to improve implementation.

Board members told Smith to present the plan July 24.

The plan is supposed to include benchmarks and a timeline that will allow the community to understand the transition’s progress, he said.

Erika Russell, who has been an active opponent of the system, said moving on the curriculum should stop while the assessesment is taking place.

“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 cast doubt on 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 said.

Board member Donna Doucette, of Oakland, who expressed concerns about implementation speed as an incumbent candidate in November, also said the district needs to wait.

“I think we should stop it completely, reassess everything, make those benchmarks, have some standards, and then make a transition then,” Doucette said.

She also said she agrees with parents who think educators are experimenting with their children.
“I am very scared, going into another year, that these kids may lose another whole year,” he said. “I don’t think we should be changing as we go, because that does make our kids the guinea pigs.”

Smith reiterated his opposition to halting the transition.

“Suspending activities, curricular work and other activities, is just going to be self-defeating,” Smith said.

The 45-day window, which Smith said he was comfortable with, was meant to allow him the time to do a good job of putting together a timeline and an action plan, but quickly enough to give the board time to consider it and possibly make changes.

Smith said he has heard the call for hard data that will measure the system’s effect on the district this year, but he cautioned that it may be too early to draw any conclusions.

He said he’s seen positive gains in mathematics scores in some schools, but there are too many variables to attribute them to mass customized learning.

“If it increases four years in a row, then I’d say, ‘Hey, we’re on to something,’” he said.

Maine is one of 44 states that have adopted an education plan that advocates proficiency-based learning, in which students must demonstrate mastery of a particular skill before moving on to the next skill. Because students learn all of the material before they can move on, the need for grading is eliminated. Because students learn at their own pace, they are grouped by skill level, rather than by age.

Messalonskee High School students, however, will continue to receive grade point averages under the new system, Laura Downing, the educational committee chairwoman told the board Wednesday night.
High school principal Jon Moody said they would keep the grades, because there are benefits, such as scholarships and college admissions tests, that require them.

The board also set its summer meeting schedule. It plans to meet on June 19, July 24, August 14 and August 29.

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

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