The announcement at the Capitol with Education Commissioner Susan Gendron and Governor John Baldacci about the New England Education Consortium that will revolutionize how high school is taught. Photo by Ramona du Houx

A pilot program announced for a groundbreaking regional partnership aimed at transforming high school for the 21st century

Article by Ramona du Houx

February 13th, 2009

In the 21st century global economy, becoming an innovative thinker is a necessary skill for success. Secondary education needs to change to accommodate the new technology skills, interactive skills, communication skills, and workplace skills that are necessary to navigate careers that may change many times in a lifetime.

The United States is embarrassingly behind that learning curve, but Maine took a major step forward, putting the state on course with the creation of The New England Secondary School Consortium. In December, Education Commissioner Susan Gendron and Governor John Baldacci announced the partnership that is funded by a $1 million grant that will help high schools prepare students for the jobs of the global economy.

“The consortium is built in part on an agreement that, contrary to the experiences of students a century ago, the skills needed by college-bound and work-bound students are the same,” said Baldacci. “Our new partnership will bring bold, transformative innovations to the design and delivery of secondary education.”

Students at the future transformed high schools will conduct research in their communities, acquire real-world skills through challenging internships, take online and on-campus college courses, use powerful new technologies to access the world, and engage in other innovative learning opportunities both inside and outside the classroom.

“It’s about all of our education organizations working together on behalf of our students to graduate every student to be college, career, and workforce ready,” said Gendron.

New England is already known for education and Maine is known for its education institutions, like Bowdoin, Bates, Colby, and UM’s innovative expertise. The state ranks 15th in the nation for secondary education.

“If we can brand our region as an education region, that will be certainly a tremendous draw to New England,” said Baldacci. “There are areas that businesses will locate to because of an educated, skilled workforce. It’s a major factor in their decision-making process. We want our students ready to meet the needs of the 21st century, so they can succeed here in Maine. This consortium will help us reach that goal.”

“We truly would love to see Maine and New England become more attractive to businesses,” said Gendron.

According to Gendron, the consortium was discussed and agreed upon at the Governors’ Conference in Bar Harbor last autumn and has been a year in the making.

“Our workforce needs to have the skills and knowledge base to compete globally,” said Baldacci.

The New England Secondary School Consortium, consisting of Maine, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Vermont, will review education policies, graduation requirements, and programs already in place throughout the region. Then they will implement the best practices applicable to each state.

The consortium goals call for increasing the high school graduation rate to 90 percent, decreasing the dropout rate to less than 1 percent, increasing the percentage of students who enroll in a two- or four-year college to 80 percent, reducing the need for college developmental-remedial courses to 5 percent, and ensuring that more students who enter college graduate from college.

The $1 million grant from Nellie Mae Education Foundation includes a $500,000 partnership grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation for the grant has a history.

Carrabec High School in North Anson was chosen in 2002 to test innovative plans to reflect the learning needs of today’s students. At that time, they were one of ten schools in Maine that received a Gates Foundation grant to conduct that pilot program, which will contribute to the consortium’s implementations.

Carrabec added more college credit courses taken through the Internet, learning business and job skills, and developed a portfolio system that highlighted achievements of their student’s academic careers, equipping students with a resume to enter the job world or to apply for college. The emphasis was on learning practical skills for becoming a success in the world, while encouraging students to pursue a college degree.

The key to making the changes that worked, according to former principal Jamie Weggler, was working with the community. “We held community meetings to inform parents of our plans and to seek input,” said Weggler. “We had a student appointed to the school board, so student’s issues were heard. People involved and concerned in their student’s education came forward with ideas.”

At another pilot school, Messalonskee High School in Oakland, more than 150 college credits have been earned by students. “These students are ready for college because they have had a taste of what it is like; the program has helped to motivate them. Also their parents saved thousands of dollars on tuition costs,” said Jim Morse, superintendent of the central Maine district. “High school has to go beyond its walls for students to succeed in the 21st century; they need real educational experiences to motivate them.”

A task force of teachers, administrators, and school board members recently issued recommendations to Gendron. Some of those recommendations were a result of the work done at the ten schools that received the first pilot grant.

“We will be sharing that work,” said Gendron. “We will collect data and information, and it may help to inform the work of other states.”

The same four states recently announced a collaboration to create a common student assessment program.

The consortium also will undertake a wide-ranging examination of state learning standards, teaching strategies, assessment practices, professional-development programs, and student outcomes in relation to the highest-performing international educational systems.

During the initial 18-month phase of the multiyear effort, the participating states will conduct a comprehensive review of the rules, regulations and laws governing education.

It is hoped that the resulting policy map will lead to the development of new state and local policies aimed at stimulating educational innovation, encouraging the implementation of new models of teaching and learning, requiring personalized support for each student, and clarifying performance expectations for educators and students.

The Great Schools Partnership at the Sen. George J. Mitchell Scholarship Research Institute in Portland will coordinate the yearlong effort.