PORTLAND – In his 22nd year as principal of King Middle School, Mike McCarthy knows the importance of taking risks in education.

It’s something he came to value 15 years ago, when a science teacher proposed a learning project that required students to go snorkeling off Willard Beach in South Portland and take underwater photographs of ocean organisms.

The photos would be used to create a field guide to Casco Bay. It was the first major project in the school’s Expeditionary Learning program, a teaching model promoted by Outward Bound that emphasizes interdisciplinary, hands-on education.

McCarthy approved the project, doing what he could to address concerns about students’ safety. Later, as he watched the children working at the beach in their wet suits, McCarthy realized that his approval was a turning point in his career.

“The work was unbelievable because the kids were so engaged,” said McCarthy, 58. “Even kids who weren’t necessarily the best students were coming out of the water so excited. At one point I thought to myself that I should be getting back to the school. Then I realized that I was right where learning was happening.”

When McCarthy translates such risk-taking for other educators — many of whom are attached to tried-and-true teaching methods — he tells them to avoid knee-jerk opposition to new ideas and “have a bias for ‘yes.’ “

That’s one of McCarthy’s “Ten Big Ideas of School Leadership,” a list that appears in the April issue of Edutopia magazine, a national publication of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.

The list also can be found on Edutopia.com, along with videos highlighting effective use of laptops at King Middle School and Casco Bay High School, which also follows the Expeditionary Learning model.

On April 29, McCarthy will receive the 2010 Middle Level Principal of the Year Award from the Maine Principals’ Association during its spring conference at the Samoset Resort in Rockport. The award recognizes McCarthy’s leadership in transforming a diverse, urban school from below-average to above-average performance on state reading, math and science tests.

It also puts McCarthy in the running for 2011 National Middle School Principal of the Year, to be presented in October during a principals’ institute and awards banquet in Washington, D.C.

McCarthy was one of four finalists for the national award in 1997, after he was named Maine’s Principal of the Year in 1996, when the award recognized middle- and high-school administrators.

McCarthy’s reputation as an expert on school reform has only grown since then. He has lectured in 31 states, Canada and Bermuda, and he has hosted visitors from Ireland, England, Sweden, Australia and Japan who were interested in King Middle School’s success.

He’s also an adjunct professor in the educational leadership program at the University of Southern Maine and a national faculty member for Expeditionary Learning.

Portland Superintendent Jim Morse and others nominated McCarthy for recognition by the National Association of Secondary School Principals and MetLife Resources.

“If they base it on student performance, Mike McCarthy is a strong contender for the national award,” Morse said. “He has faced all of the challenges that would indicate that King Middle School should not be successful and he has overcome them with great results.”

Thirty percent of King Middle School’s 540 students are immigrants who are learning to speak English, and 56 percent of the school’s students qualify for free or subsidized lunches.

McCarthy started at King Middle School in 1988. Before that, he was principal of Bonny Eagle Middle School for eight years, assistant principal at Waterville High School for three years and a teacher at Roberts Junior High School in Medford, Mass., for four years.

He lives in Hollis with his wife, Susan, who heads the math department at Gorham High School. They have three grown children.

McCarthy’s tips for educational leadership emphasize action, honesty and respect, like the principles promoted in King’s classrooms. He recommends having clear expectations and making sure that people have the knowledge, resources and time to accomplish what’s expected.

At the same time, McCarthy promotes the need for everyone to take responsibility for good and bad results, including the person in charge. He’s not much for passing blame.

“I tell my staff, if the problem lies below you, in the elementary schools, or with parents, or if the problem lies above you, with central office or the School Committee, then you’ve rendered yourself irrelevant,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy advises school administrators to act decisively and know that consensus-building sometimes sinks great ideas and reinforces bad results, especially if one tries to please the 20 percent of the population who will oppose anything.

That’s one reason McCarthy asked the School Committee in 2007 to allow King’s health center to provide birth control after four girls became pregnant in one semester.

The committee approved the proposal, igniting a national controversy.

McCarthy said the experience cemented the school community to its goal of supporting all kids 100 percent of the time, even if only a small percentage of students needed the service.

“It’s about getting everyone to the top of the mountain,” McCarthy said, “not just yourself.”

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: [email protected]