In the weeks before graduation, each senior at Casco Bay High School in Portland is asked to deliver a speech on who they are on the verge of one of life’s great milestones. It’s what we call “Final Word.”

One part of Nate Hesselink’s Final Word aptly summed up our school’s aspirations: “Casco is a place where not only do I learn, but I enjoy myself while doing so. Casco has shaped me, helped me grow, taught me how to listen to others, speak my mind, respect opposing viewpoints and think critically, both about myself and the world around me.”

We’re a proud part of Portland Public Schools and a leader in the national EL Education network. Nearly 200 educators from around Maine and the nation visited us this school year, primarily to learn how we try to do three things:

How do we create a community where each student feels known and empowered to bring their best self?

 How do we design meaningful interdisciplinary projects that inspire students toward excellence?

 How do we do proficiency-based learning?


This last question can cause the most anxiety – until our visitors realize that answering the third question is a vital part of answering the first two.

Establishing learning targets, getting clear on what each student should know and be able to do, frees students to chart their particular path toward success and can catalyze teachers to work together to devise the most meaningful means to achieve the desired, shared targets.

I am proud of our district and state for taking on the challenging but necessary work of transforming our antiquated, scatter-shot assessment system – where graduates too often earn a diploma without first acquiring essential college and career competencies – into one that is proficiency-based.

I’m also grateful that the Legislature recently adjusted the time line so districts have more time to work with their communities to get this right.

By 2021, students must be able to demonstrate they are proficient in math, science, English and social studies in order to ensure that they graduate ready for college, career and active citizenship. The mandate adds one additional proficiency area – health and physical education, visual and performing arts, world languages, and career and education development – for each subsequent graduating class until 2025.

Though opponents may push the notion that proficiency-based standards let businesses do the educating rather than teachers, or that these models decrease student engagement through digitization, we cannot allow them to derail our momentum. Our children deserve better.


The transition to a proficiency-based model hasn’t been perfect (what innovation is?), but the criticisms do not accurately reflect the incredible learning, the rigor with joy, I see at Casco Bay. Our students demonstrate their knowledge and understanding through long-term, in-depth studies called “Learning Expeditions,” which often center on social and environmental issues. Each expedition involves fieldwork, research and critical thinking as well as individual and group problem-solving.

In February, we hosted an income inequality symposium where each junior presented their research and defended their proposed solution to panels of experts on one aspect of a larger problem, from minimum wage to affordable housing.

In April, after months of preparation and fundraising, the entire junior class – over 100 students and staff – traveled to Detroit for a week of service and documentary study. They worked to rehabilitate some of the dilapidated neighborhoods that are vital to Detroit’s renaissance. And they interviewed local heroes in Detroit’s efforts to combat income inequality, from the deputy mayor to a single mother of five who recently repurchased her once-foreclosed house.

Ultimately, the class created a full-length documentary that premiered to raves at Portland’s Nickelodeon last month and will premiere in Detroit next fall.

Educators should explore how proficiency-based learning can unleash students’ potential. We’re the last place to be accused of “teaching to the test,” but our students defy demographic expectations and routinely outperform state peers on standardized tests. This spring, we were again named one of U.S. News & World Report’s top 10 Maine high schools. Our dropout rate is 1.6 percent; 98 percent of our graduates have been accepted to college.

Rather than creating complacent students and frustrated teachers, proficiency-based education – when done right – facilitates meaningful collaboration between students, teachers, families and communities. We empower students to pursue their particular passion while ensuring they develop the critical thinking and skills needed to succeed as adults.

We are excited to continue to partner with our colleagues in Portland and around Maine with the noble aim of cultivating more Nates.

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