Erin Dickson, school health coordinator for School Administrative District 60, at her home office in York on Friday. She and Noble High School health teacher Miranda Wakefield are proposing a wellness coordinator, training for learning coaches, in-person learning space and enrichment activities for students who may participate in a virtual middle school option next year.  Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

When a teacher in her district reached out this spring to ask Erin Dickson if she wanted to take a graduate level class on innovation, she wasn’t sure what to think but was excited to try something different.

“The pandemic can put you into kind of a fog,” said Dickson, who works as the school health coordinator for School Administrative District 60 in Berwick. “You’re on a screen. You’re not interacting with people. I just thought it would be a good way to connect and work on something together and start thinking beyond the pandemic.”

Dickson and her colleague, Noble High School health teacher Miranda Wakefield, were interested in finding ways to capitalize on some of the positive things teachers have learned during the coronavirus pandemic and help students going forward. Eight weeks later they’ve written a proposal for a wellness coordinator, training for learning coaches, in-person learning space and enrichment activities for students who may participate in a virtual middle school option their district is working on for next year.

Their idea is among dozens that teachers and school staff around Maine are developing with a chance to get funding for their schools through a $16.9 million U.S. Department of Education grant to the state. Maine is one of 11 states to receive the funding for rethinking education to better serve students during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

Through the grant, teachers and educators have the chance to participate in innovation and pilot design classes like the one Dickson and Wakefield enrolled in and write pilot projects for improving remote education. The courses are being offered at no cost to the educators and in conjunction with higher education partners, including the University of Maine, the Maine Community College System and Thomas College.

Teams of educators can then apply for up to $250,000 in funding to implement either their pilot or one developed by another team. An online collaboration hub will provide access to ideas, new programs and troubleshooting once the pilots are launched.

“I think the pandemic and that transition kind of gave teachers permission to re-evaluate what they’re doing and try new things,” said Martin Mackey, project director for Maine DOE’s Rethinking Remote Education Venture. “The innovation that has come in the last year for education is pretty profound. We’ve been given permission to try things we weren’t able to try before. The other thing is this has opened eyes to the fact maybe the traditional education model isn’t for everyone.”

Teachers who participate in the venture are asked to think about ways to improve remote learning. The definition of remote learning is broad, though, and goes beyond pandemic-style Zoom learning. In addition to online education, the program asks educators to think about outdoor learning, extended learning opportunities and multiple pathways. A high school student whose school only offers French 1 and 2 could take French 3 at a local college. A student who is interested in physical therapy could design a course curriculum and get credit for working with a physical therapist.

“One thing the pandemic made clear is the equity issues with access to online resources and other opportunities for learning,” Mackey said. “So what we’re trying to do is open up other channels for students to access the learning in different ways other than what is currently offered by their school.”

Cheverus High School chemistry teacher Helene Adams prepares for in-person classroom instruction, plus a remote learner via Zoom on her laptop. Adams is among dozens of teachers statewide who are participating in innovation classes through the Maine Department of Education to reimagine remote learning. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Helene Adams, a chemistry teacher at Cheverus High School in Portland, got involved in the project after having to completely rethink her approach last spring when schools around the state closed their buildings. “What initially attracted me was, here’s this opportunity to figure out how you can more effectively do remote education and there’s the potential after you take the class to write a pilot project or a grant that can impact student learning in the state of Maine,” Adams said. “That’s our big goal. What can we do?”

Helene Adams works with Cheverus students in a lab experiment demonstrating vacuums. Adams is among dozens of teachers in Maine who will have a chance to write their own pilot projects and get as much as $250,000 in funding through a federal grant. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Adams said one thing that has been helpful for her in the last year is the opportunity to connect with other science teachers through the Maine STEM Partnership and the Maine Math and Science Alliance. “When this was early on they would say, ‘We will do a Zoom at 6. You guys all hop on and we’ll talk about how are we going to do testing,'” she said.

She wants to keep those connections going, especially for new teachers in rural schools, so she came up with a pilot to encourage teacher collaboration. The idea didn’t quite fit the parameters of the remote learning project, so Adams said she won’t be able to get pilot funding for it, but she still got something out of the class. “I’m grateful because these are conversations I wouldn’t even be having if I didn’t have the opportunity to think about innovation and big picture,” she said. “I’d still be focused on getting through the year and Zooming, I think.”

In SAD 60, Dickson was already part of a committee to look at developing a virtual option for middle school students post-pandemic when the opportunity for the class came up. “We have all this technology and we have a need,” she said. “For some kids, this has been a good thing. They’ve been able to improve their grades and they are more engaged in this format. So there’s been a group in my district that’s been trying to think about how to do virtual learning beyond the pandemic.”

A permanent remote option at the middle school could provide homeschool families more opportunities for social connection or academic support for students as they get older, Dickson said. Middle school also tends to be a time when students may start to struggle with anxiety and depression. While attending school virtually may not be a solution to those problems, Dickson said the opportunity to attend school from home while working with a wellness coordinator could be helpful for some students.

The pilot she wrote with Wakefield calls for a full-time wellness coordinator to work with remote students and training for learning coaches on topics such as trauma-informed teaching, mental health disorders and strategies for making connections. Having enough space to comply with CDC guidance has been a challenge for all schools this year, and Dickson said she would want to ensure remote students have their own space, such as a yurt, to call their own on the occasions they would come to school in-person.

The district is still in the early stages of developing Noble Virtual Middle School, but if it’s successful the project could expand to the high school as well, SAD 60 Assistant Superintendent Sue Austin said. The decision to offer a virtual option next year is about offering families more flexibility while also keeping them enrolled in the district, she said.

“I think the wellness piece of it is a vital part of an online virtual program,” Austin said. “We’re in a place where all of this is very new for us so we will have a lot more to say in a few months. It’s not an experiment, but it is a pilot project to see if this meets people’s needs and I think the wellness piece is a very important part of it.”

In Windham-based Regional School Unit 14, Director of Community Connections Lanet Anthony wants to find ways to have interdisciplinary and project-based credit options for students who are struggling with traditional course work, including some classes that could be completely remote or hybrid. A gardening course would include science, math and ecology principles. A baking course would be nutrition and chemistry. An Outdoors in Maine course would be a mix of English, gym and health.

In her current work, Anthony already focuses on individual coursework and student choice. “The pandemic really changed our capacity for that,” she said. “Before the pandemic, when it came to anything online, really the only option most people would consider was a premade course you purchased from somewhere and had students do online. Because of the pandemic and all the tools we’ve discovered we’re now realizing online doesn’t have to be completely separate.”

The ability to secure funding for their districts is a draw for educators to participate in the program, though there’s no guarantee of which pilots will get picked. The state plans to fund more than 60 pilots throughout the life of the grant, and awards will be made across nine different regions. The process isn’t competitive but is based on criteria that aligns with the allocation of coronavirus relief funds.

Many teachers who take the classes won’t be able to get funding, but Mackey, the DOE project director, said he’s hoping they can take what they’ve learned back to their districts. “What we really want to do is just give people an alternative mindset and way of thinking about things,” he said.


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