PORTLAND — It’s not every day that King Middle School students have an opportunity to present their work to the highest ranking education official in the nation.

But Keyly Martinez, Joanna Quinn and Mohamed Nur took the pressure in stride and confidently described their project, “Small Acts of Courage,” to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan when he stopped by the school Tuesday afternoon.

Duncan listened closely as the eighth-graders explained how they conducted an interdisciplinary study of the civil rights movement in the spring, when they were seventh-graders. They interviewed activists and compiled a four-volume oral history, which they donated to the Gerald E. Talbot Collection of black history at the University of Southern Maine, said their teacher, Caitlin LeClair.

Duncan congratulated the students on their work and their contribution to the community. The students were visibly impressed.

“It was an honor to meet him,” Nur said after speaking with Duncan. “Presenting this work to him means we did a really good job. And this is the best part of Expeditionary Learning: you get to present your work.”

Duncan visited King Middle School on Tuesday as the last stop on an eight-state bus tour recognizing principals, teachers and others who are leading the way in improving students’ performance, recruitment of teachers, and school nutrition and safety.

About 75 local dignitaries, school administrators, teachers and students greeted Duncan at the school, which will welcome back teachers today and students on Tuesday.

“This school and this state’s reputation is known nationally,” Duncan told the gathering in the school’s library.

King has received national recognition for its success in using the Expeditionary Learning model, in which teachers and students work on multidisciplinary projects that address community issues.

In addition, King Principal Mike McCarthy is Maine’s 2010 Middle Level Principal of the Year and is a finalist for the 2011 National Middle Level Principal of the Year.

Duncan said a favorite aspect of his job is identifying what’s working in education today. He said school leadership is a critical factor and he praised McCarthy for creating an environment that supports the success of teachers and students.

“It’s much easier to tear down a good school than it is to build it up,” Duncan said. “We can’t do enough to spotlight success.”

McCarthy shared the limelight, emphasizing the importance of having good teachers.

“The key element of a good education is who’s running the classroom,” he said. “We have a school where everybody matters.”

Superintendent Jim Morse described Duncan as the “rock star” of education and credited McCarthy with injecting King Middle School with a whole new way of thinking about education.

Angela Faherty, Maine’s acting education commissioner, said teachers are responsible for providing “enthralling experiences” in schools that range from large and ethnically diverse, such as King, which has 550 students in grades 6 through 8, to small and unique, such as the 22 island schools off the Maine coast.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said education is a “group effort” and urged Duncan to support programs that encourage uniform educational standards across the country without diminishing the uniqueness of Maine communities.

Duncan was joined Tuesday by David Mineta, the new deputy director of demand reduction for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Mineta affirmed President Obama’s commitment to addressing illicit drug use.

Mayor Nick Mavodones gave Duncan a polished brass key to the city, saying, “You certainly are a friend to the city of Portland.”

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: kbouchard@pressherald.com