Opinion: RSU 13 superintendent outlines big changes to Rockland area schools, district offices

Schools of our future: Today

Posted:  Friday, February 17, 2017 - 9:45am

A little over a year ago, I presented a concept plan to our School Board and community outlining a comprehensive approach to improving education in RSU 13, called the "Schools of Our Future." Today I would like to report on the progress of our plans and about the bond referendum coming up on February 28 that will fund much needed and long awaited improvements for schools in our region.

The Schools of Our Future is an initiative to revitalize and improve education in all of our regional schools, focusing on key areas: curriculum and instruction; social and emotional support for students; academic offerings and opportunities for students; teacher and administrative development and evaluation; and facilities, or creating safe, comfortable, attractive, and efficient learning environments for our students and our communities. I am pleased to say that we have made tremendous progress in this initiative through the efforts and hard work of our school board, administrators, teaching and support staff, community partners, and parents.

Curriculum and Instruction

The cornerstone of our educational philosophy is to build positive relationships amongst our students, their teachers, and the community. To foster these relationships, we have adopted a number of approaches. First, we have established a Student Engagement Task Force with members from our school board, staff, administration, community, and partner organizations to oversee and support our efforts to keep all students engaged and supported within our schools. The Task Force meets monthly and is actively involved in this endeavor.

In our elementary schools, we have adopted the Responsive Classroom program, a program that espouses the belief that the social and emotional curriculum is as important as the academic curriculum. It also emphasizes that to be successful academically and socially, children need to learn a set of social and emotional skills: cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control. It is planned that all of our elementary school administrators and staff will be trained in and will adopt this program.

Our high school and middle school staff have been trained using the Restorative Practices model, which furthers emotional and social support and development by teaching responsibility and accountability, and by emphasizing that communicating effectively with each other -- recognizing our roles as members of a community -- creates connections and fosters positive relationships among individual members and the community as a whole. In addition, the high school has established a Freshman Academy to create an even more supportive environment for freshman transitioning from middle school, and will implement the BARR (Building Assets and Reducing Risks, grant funded) program in the Fall of 2017.

In terms of our academic curriculum, our region has also made great progress in a short time. Oceanside High School now offers a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Academy for students, along with a Liberal Arts Academy and a Fisherman's Academy. Students pursuing any one of these pathways will receive an endorsement on their diploma. We have also partnered with the RiSE Science Center at the University of Maine to begin offering professional development for our teaching staff and have adopted research-based, inquiry based science curriculum at Oceanside Middle School.

Currently, our newly expanded Gifted and Talented Program has three full time teaching staff and is fully approved by the Maine Department of Education. We have established a Pre-K program with four classrooms to serve the needs of early learners after receiving nearly $1 million in grant monies to cover initial costs. All of our schools now have one to one computing in grades 3 through 12, raising our ability to utilize technology in teaching and learning to new levels. Pilots in literacy and mathematics programs in our elementary schools will soon result in the adoption of unified teaching and curriculum resources.

To put it simply, RSU 13 schools are not the schools of three years ago.

Teacher and Administrator Development and Evaluation

RSU 13 has developed and adopted new models and best practices in helping to develop and evaluate our teaching and administrative staff. Our Educator Effectiveness model is based on the work of Dr. Robert Marzano, author of The Art and Science of Teaching. A key tenet of this system is that,

"along with a well- articulated curriculum and a safe and orderly environment the single most influential component of an effective school is the individual teachers within that school" (Marzano)

Our Administrator Evaluation model is one developed by the Maine Principals Association and is based on the Interstate School Leadership Licensure Consortium Policy (ISLLC) Standards. Both systems will be fully implemented during the 2017-2018 school year.

Energy Conservation Projects

For the last three years, our Finance and Facilities Committee, our administration, and the school board have had to reckon with one undeniable fact: there is a terrible cost in doing nothing. Our facilities have struggled with aging heating systems, inadequate or non-existent ventilation systems, poor lighting, and outdated control systems. Stories of windows being open in the buildings in February because the rooms were overheated, or pipes freezing due to the reverse situation were commonly shared during our discussions.

We had too many buildings, too expensive to maintain effectively, and not conducive to learning due to issues with air quality or temperature. Maintenance was deferred or contingency monies expended due to the inability of the RSU to cope with the situation. A better plan needed to be developed.

After much pre-planning, investigating and consideration, the decision was made during the 2015-2016 school year to undertake an extensive energy conservation project in partnership with Siemens Energy to address the needs of all of the facilities we had determined to maintain in the RSU. These upgrades would be financed through a combination of energy savings, building closures, and other efficiencies. This work was undertaken and completed by the late fall of 2016.

Schools now have energy efficient propane boilers, proper ventilation, efficient lighting, and modern controls. We have also completed phase one of window replacements at Oceanside High School. All of these systems are guaranteed for the length of the financing agreement, as well as the energy savings gained by the projects. Our schools have a much better look and feel, and better air quality as a result; and we are not wasting the money we spend to maintain them.

Current Projects

We are now beginning what will be the final phase of projects to fulfill the facilities needs of the Schools of Our Future initiative.

An immediate need is to construct additional classrooms at Oceanside Middle School to accommodate the incoming sixth grade class and for special education programming. In addition, we plan to renovate and expand the cafeteria, which is too small for the school's needs, and to update the kitchen to modern standards. At Oceanside Middle School, there are also plans to construct a bus garage and industrial arts space.

Oceanside High School will also receive renovations to an undersized and outdated cafeteria and kitchen. This is our largest school with 500 students, yet those spaces often cannot meet the food preparation needs or seat the students adequately. At Oceanside High School, new bathrooms will also be constructed near the gym and auditorium and the lower level, and locker rooms and exercise space will be renovated and made ADA and Title 9 compliant. These changes will also open more classroom space on the main level to better serve the needs of our new Freshman Academy.

Finally, we plan to replace two 1950s vintage schools, Owls Head and Gilford Butler, with a new Pre-K to grade 5 elementary school to serve the needs of the Owls Head and South Thomaston communities.

We will fund these projects by creating efficiencies and reducing the number of buildings we currently maintain. Last year, the Lura Libby School was closed and returned to the Town of Thomaston. This year, we plan to close the McLain Office Building and to offer it to the City of Rockland. The closure of Owls Head and Gilford Butler to be replaced by the new school will "right size" our school system, and provide us with modern and efficient learning environments for all of our students.

It is our commitment to complete these projects without raising our budget, and we have easily identified over $1.2 million dollars in annual savings through closures and efficiencies to cover the bond payment on all of these projects.

Good schools make good communities. In everything we do to improve education in RSU 13, we are making an investment in our future.

Good schools attract families, encourage business development, and promote the sense of community that make our towns places where we all thrive and where people want to stay to experience what is best about life in these Maine towns.

If we have vision, courage, and commitment, we can realize the promise of the Schools of Our Future. It is my personal commitment to all of our students and to all community members to fulfil this promise of great schools.

Please join us by voting on February 28 for an investment in all of our futures.

John C. McDonald is Superintendent of RSU 13