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Originally published in Castine Patriot, June 28, 2012
Community group explores proficiency based learning for Penobscot school

by Anne Berleant

Proficiency based education “is not a quick exportable model,” Michael Grillo, a member of the Penobscot school discussion group reported after speaking with an Oakland assistant superintendent of a school using that model.

The group met on June 25 to share information and brainstorm ways to continue offering a quality education to Penobscot students without raising costs. Alternative teaching models have long been one focus of the community group, which regularly offers its ideas and shares information with the school board. Last fall, it held a well-attended public forum with an Orland-based charter school alliance on the idea of creating a project-based charter school in Penobscot.

Proficiency based education is what it sounds like: when a student becomes proficient in a content area of learning, he or she moves to the next level. This individualizes the learning track, so students are neither pushed forward before they are ready nor held back after they’ve become proficient in a particular subject.

The group had contacted Linda Laughlin, the assistant superintendent of RSU 18, which plans to expand its proficiency based teaching initiative first started in Oakland, to invite her to speak at a public meeting in Penobscot this fall.

Laughlin was receptive to the idea, Grillo said, but asked the group to first develop its ideas through a mission statement, and by articulating the community’s expectations of the school, willingness to work toward those goals, and the resources available.

While the group-at-large did not see a practical use in creating a mission statement, noting that the school’s mission statement is under the purview of the school board, they have reached out to Penobscot teachers and the community since forming as a group, through informal and written surveys.

“What does the school community want to do and the community-at-large want to see?” asked Richard Washburn.

The group is dedicated to meeting the needs of all students in a democratic, non-judgmental way.

“It starts early, where kids compare what level they’re reading in,” Luki Hewitt said. “We should be able to individualize projects so kids can learn at their level without comparing.”

Proficiency based learning could balance out public school classrooms where the focus has long been on the students who lag, while gifted and talented programs have been cut.

“We have better programs for addressing kids who fall behind than those who should progress beyond,” said Grillo.

“Kids who are excelling—our future leaders—we need to give them the opportunity to excel,” said Paul Bowen, who has served on the school board in past years.

“You get screams of elitism if you support those kids,” he added.

The Penobscot school, with its two-grade classrooms, already teaches to individual student’s level to some degree, Principal Allen Cole said. “There isn’t going to be a time when we started it,” he said in reply to Jamie McNair’s concern of the “guinea pig” students of a proficiency-based program.

“I think you already have,” said Washburn.

The question of measuring community support of the school was answered by Bowen, a town selectman, on two fronts.

First, the community voted to keep its school by voting against joining an RSU in 2010 by over 65 percent. Second, 86 percent of money raised by property taxes goes to education, he said. “It’s right on the tax bill.”

Next month’s meeting agenda will include information on project-based teaching at the King School in Portland, and Cole hopes to report on an in-person visit with RSU 18 Assistant Superintendent Laughlin. The Penobscot school discussion group next meets on Monday, July 30, at 6 p.m. at the school.