OAKLAND — A 21-year member of Regional School Unit 18 who opposes the district’s controversial curriculum change resigned last week after a contentious closed-door board meeting at which she said she was verbally attacked.

Donna Doucette, 56, who has represented Oakland on the school board for 21 years, resigned at 1 a.m. Thursday after an executive session Wednesday at which, she said, she was insulted by both the other board members and superintendent.

The session was called Wednesday after Doucette sent the board an email criticizing mass customized learning and the way the middle and high school administrators are handling it.

Board Chairwoman Laura Tracy and district Superintendent Gary Smith both would not discuss the meeting. But Tracy did confirm that the email Doucette sent the board, and the board’s reaction to it, led to Doucette’s resignation.

On Monday morning, Doucette said she resigned in part to protect her health from the stress and turmoil caused by the transition to mass customized learning, a learning system that the school has adopted to align with new state standards.

“It’s starting to physically make me sick. My doctor has asked me to stop. I’m just mentally frustrated,” Doucette said. “It’s starting to take up all of my 24 hours for my day. I have people calling all the time.”

Doucette submitted her resignation to the board in an email timestamped about 1 a.m. Thursday, hours after a regularly scheduled board meeting that included the closed session.

“It is with a broken heart that I must leave the things I love the most,” Doucette wrote in the resignation letter.

Tracy said the entire board is feeling the stress of the public outcry over the shift to a different educational system, but said the district is moving in the right direction.

Messalonskee Middle School and elementary schools in the district’s towns of Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney began using the education system on a limited basis a couple years ago and in all classrooms last fall. The high school will begin using it this fall.

The state Department of Education has used the district as an example for other districts as they shift toward standards-based education, with focuses on students mastering a concept before moving on to another one, rather than dividing students by age.

“I can’t get on board with most of the (mass customized learning), and I can’t put my name on something other schools may imitate as it is now,” Doucette wrote. “Therefore, I feel my time as an effective board member is done.”

Doucette wrote in her letter that she worries about the lack of parenting skills she sees in most families.

“I feel our place as educators now is to make children feel secure and safe in order to learn,” she wrote. “I’m afraid with everything we’re implementing we are getting away from that at a time it’s needed most.”

Tracy said that the traditional classroom model was failing too many students, with 30 or 40 percent routinely failing to demonstrate proficiency in basic English and math skills, and that proficiency-based learning, also known as standards-based and mass customized learning, is designed to meet the needs of every student.

Emotions run high

Doucette also said her resignation was sparked by personal attacks on her at Wednesday’s executive session, which was held to discuss “employment of employees,” a category Smith said includes any employee in the district, from board members to bus drivers.

Smith said such meetings are held behind closed doors to protect the employees’ privacy. Public bodies including the school board may meet privately in an executive session for certain narrowly defined purposes.

Before Wednesday’s meeting, Doucette said she wrote an email to board members and administrators criticizing Messalonskee Middle School Principal Mark Hatch and Messalonskee High School Principal Jon Moody for how they are handling the changeover to mass customized learning.

She would not specify the language she used in the email, but she said she wrote it, in part, because she didn’t like the way the parents of students at the two schools were being treated.

Doucette said that after she sent the email she got a response from Moody in which he suggested an executive session of the board to discuss it. Hatch saw her in person before the Wednesday meeting and also suggested that they should speak about her email, Doucette said.

Doucette said she was confronted during the executive session by Superintendent Smith and the board without Moody present. She said Smith told her Moody and Hatch had spoken about pressing charges against her. She also said she was called a liar, although she wouldn’t say who said it.

Doucette also would not say what in her email could have been considered to be grounds for criminal charges.

She said she was in tears for most of the meeting, which lasted about an hour.

“I was broken. And it pisses me off,” she said. “Nobody breaks me. And they broke me.”

Doucette said that she felt that only one board member supported her during the meeting.

Doucette said Monday that her quarrel is with mass customized learning and central administrators, not Moody and Hatch.

In her resignation letter, Doucette referred to Moody and Hatch as great administrators and wrote that she was greatly sorry that she had upset them.

After the meeting, Doucette said she drove home and sat alone at her kitchen table for an hour, replaying the meeting in her mind. After thinking about it, she said, she decided to write her resignation letter.

Part of the reason, she said, was that her frustration with the shift to mass customized learning was so great she was having a hard time containing herself during board meetings.

Mass customized learning

Doucette’s resignation is the latest development in the district’s transition toward a dramatically different teaching system.

In a traditional classroom, a student in fourth grade might master 80 percent of the material, receive a grade of a B and move on to fifth grade the following year. In a proficiency-based classroom, the curriculum is broken down into skills. For example, a student in fourth grade must demonstrate the ability to summarize the text of a poem or short story and its theme. Students who show they have learned the skill move on to the next skill, while those who don’t keep trying until they master it.

Because all students learn all of the material, the system does not call for traditional test scoring and because students are learning at their own pace, they are not divided into age-based classrooms.

State educators have said a proficiency-based system is the best way to serve both fast and slow learners. But the system has drawn opposition from an organized group of parents who say their students are not learning needed material at all.

Doucette said she is following parents and teachers who have left the district because of the teaching system.

“This thing is splitting the district up,” she said.

Tracy said the board is concerned about the rifts that the transition has caused.

“The board feels a fair amount of stress right now because of the division in our community,” she said. “It’s not where the board envisioned us going. It’s not what the board wants to see. Part of our vision is getting the community engaged in supporting our learners in this system.”

Tracy said the board has heard feedback, not only that it is moving too fast, but that it is moving too slowly.

“There is pressure on both sides,” she said. “You can’t please everyone.”

Doucette has raised concerns about the transition toward mass customized learning consistently over the past year. In October, when she ran for re-election, she said she wanted the district to move more slowly and to measure the results before committing fully.

One of her biggest concerns is putting kids of different ages into the same classroom, she said Monday. She said she doesn’t like the idea of an eighth grader being in the same classroom as a sixth-grader.

She also said the problems with the first year were significant and predicted a lot of kids being left behind in the upcoming school year, as teachers in the middle school receive students from the various elementary schools, which have each implemented the system in slightly different ways.

During the public portion of the school board’s meeting Wednesday, Smith told the board that he would present a plan that identifies and corrects problem areas, as well as a timeline for future steps, at the July 24 meeting.

Future plans

Doucette on Sunday also closed Kids Korner Nursery School, which she has owned for 20 years, for unrelated reasons, she said. Her resignation will also remove her from her seat on the Mid-Maine Regional Adult Education Board and the chairmanship of the Mid-Maine Technical Center Advisory Board, both of which she holds as a district board member.

While she will still be busy running her other company, Central Maine Business Services, an accounting firm, she said she will have more time to herself during which she hopes to rest at her camp and golf.

She said she still loves the district and its teachers, and that she would consider returning if there was a change in the administrative leadership.

The letter became official when Doucette submitted it to the town of Oakland, where the town council plans to address the unexpected vacancy during its next regular meeting Wednesday evening.

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

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