SANFORD – It’s not every day that the state education commissioner shows up at your school and asks to take a look around.

That’s what happened Monday at Sanford High School, where Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, newly appointed by Gov. Paul LePage, took a tour with Principal Allan Young and several students.

Bowen, a former teacher, is in the midst of a statewide “listening tour,” which he continued Monday in York County. He started the day meeting with school officials from the area at York County Community College, then visited Massabesic Middle School in Waterboro, and ended with a public forum Monday evening in Sanford.

“I think it’s great that he’s here,” Young said during the high school tour. “He’s actively talking to kids, talking to faculty, finding out what this community needs.”

One thing Sanford needs — and Bowen heard about several times Monday — is a new high school. The aging and crowded school, including the Sanford Regional Vocational Center, has 24 modular classrooms. It recently ranked No. 2 on the list of proposed school building projects that are eligible for funding by the Maine Department of Education.

“By coming here, it shows that (Bowen) wants to support our school in any way that he can,” said Salinda Dong, a senior and the student council president at the high school.

But the needs of Maine schools go well beyond buildings, Bowen told about 50 Sanford teachers who met with him at the high school on Monday afternoon.

“This is the most exciting time in American education in 100 years,” Bowen told the teachers. “Public education isn’t going to look the same in 50 years. We are standing on the edge here of a transformational age in education.”

To get there, Bowen said, the state education department must become a more efficient, flexible and responsive communicator and promoter of great educational initiatives that already are happening in schools across the state.

Bowen pointed to the success of a standards-based learning model that has been implemented at Massabesic Middle School, Sanford Junior High School and other Maine schools. It allows students to learn at their own pace and demonstrate knowledge in various ways, with the goal of measuring how much they know, rather than how well they perform relative to other students.

“It seems to make the learning much more meaningful,” Barbara Perry, a social studies teacher at the junior high school, told Bowen.

Bowen noted the strategic plan that Sanford schools developed to guide educational planning and funding decisions through 2015. He said he wants his department to develop a strategic plan to address its reputation for “lurching” from one initiative to the next and the credibility gap that it causes.

“I’m thrilled at the prospect of a strategic plan,” Bowen said.

The department is revamping its website to be more useful to educators and the public, Bowen said. It has hired Matt Stone, formerly an education reporter for the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, to write for the site. Stone said he has a two-year contract, funded by federal economic stimulus money.

In recent weeks, Bowen has visited schools in Hancock and Aroostook counties, western Maine and Bangor. He also plans to visit schools in Cumberland and Washington counties, Kennebec Valley and the midcoast region.

Across the state, Bowen said, he has been hearing people’s concerns about the federal No Child Left Behind Act, annual student assessments, the state’s school funding formula, federal oversight and the governor’s plan to increase teachers’ contributions to the state pension system.

Jack Reetz, a Regional School Unit 21 board member who lives in Arundel, was one of about 70 people who attended Monday’s forum at the Mousam View Place events hall. He said school districts should be preparing students to succeed as adults, rather than simply graduate from high school.

“We’ve got to build a seamless system,” Bowen said in agreement, noting that Sanford’s new high school and vocational center would offer associate’s degree programs through York County Community College.

John Flagler, a retired special education teacher who lives in Alfred, said he spent 50 percent of his time doing clerical work for federally funded programs.

Jan Goldsberry, Sanford’s curriculum director, urged Bowen to develop state policies that would make it easier for school districts to embrace reform.

Some educators are attached to a time-based grading system, which gives students credit for seat time rather than for what they’ve really learned, Goldsberry said. Schools also should be encouraged to give students credit for learning outside the classroom, whether through online courses or internships.

“It would be so much better than if we have to (change policies) one district at a time,” Goldsberry said.

Bowen ended the forum with a promise to use what he’s learning on his listening tour to inform policies he hopes to develop in the years ahead.

“I look forward to coming back and checking in on you,” he said.

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]

 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.