There are a lot of fads and buzz words in education reform, but not many clear successes. One shining exception has been Portland’s King Middle School.

Located near some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, serving hundreds of English language learners and with more than half the student body qualifying for free or subsidized lunches, King has all the elements that are often used to explain low performance. But in spite of all that, it has been a nationally recognized success.

Some might credit the learning model King pioneered over the last 27 years, but the real credit goes to its principal, Michael McCarthy, who is retiring in September.

McCarthy turned King from a school that parents fought to get their kids out of into one that couldn’t accommodate all the out-of-district families that wanted their children to get in.

McCarthy was a proponent of the Expeditionary Learning model, in which groups of teachers and students work together on hands-on projects that require an understanding of many disciplines. But King’s success was due to more than just a model.

McCarthy was able to work with faculty and develop a team where everyone understood the common strategy and was on board with carrying it out. He had a reputation of listening to his staff with an open mind, but he was not afraid to make decisions that he considered to be in the school community’s best interest, even if they were controversial.


In other words, King had a leader, and the whole school benefited.

In a 2010 interview, when he was a finalist for National Middle School Principal of the Year, McCarthy remembered how he learned to trust his staff. A group of teachers had proposed having their students snorkel in Casco Bay and take underwater photographs of ocean life. It was the kind of thing a cautious principal would have found easy to turn down.

But McCarthy said yes, and he was glad he did. “The work was unbelievable because the kids were so engaged,” he told Press Herald reporter Kelley Bouchard. “At one point I thought to myself that I should get back to the school. Then I realized that I was right where learning was happening.”

Inspiring students, empowering teachers, encouraging learning are not buzz words. They are the goals behind all other education reform ideas.

Portland has been lucky to see those concepts come to life, and McCarthy’s ideas have become the organizing principles of all the city’s middle schools. That’s a great legacy, but there is an even better lesson to be learned from McCarthy’s career.

Hiring good people, trusting them to do their jobs and giving them the support they need to succeed is still the best way to run an organization. McCarthy showed the city how leadership is supposed to work, and thousands of middle schoolers and their families will be forever grateful.

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