Raising Aspirations in Rural Maine
Doug Woodsum was a substitute at Carrabec High School in North Anson, Maine, before he was hired as a full-time English teacher three years ago. He knew it wouldn’t be an easy assignment, and a few of the students even warned him not to take the job.
“You don’t want to work here,” they told him. “This is a bad school.”
A lot of people had given up on the struggling school. In fact, they even coined a catch phrase for the rural high school’s many missteps: “That’s Carrabec,” they’d say whenever something, or someone, went wrong. It was as if the entire school community had thrown its hands in the air and sighed, “Oh well, that’s who we are, and we can’t get any better.”
Woodsum knew Carrabec had problems – the kind that plague a lot of rural, low-income schools. More than a quarter of the children in the area live in poverty. Substance abuse, teen pregnancy and dropout rates are high, while test scores have been continually low. When Carrabec was placed on the list of consistently low performing schools, Woodsum was a little daunted, but also determined.
“This is like the Mount Everest of teaching,” he said. “I’d never been tasked with anything other than just doing my job well. Now I have to do my job well and help my school pull itself out of a public humiliation.”
But Woodsum knew he couldn’t do it alone. Everyone had to pitch in, and now Woodsum and the staff at Carrabec are collaborating with the administration to help the school regain its footing and rebuild its reputation. They’re engaging community partners and lifting the aspirations of all the students.
Carrabec, awarded a School Improvement Grant because of its commitment to raising achievement, is also part of the National Education Association’s Priority Schools Campaign (PSC).
PSC supports school transformation approaches that involve educators, communities and policymakers at both the state and national levels, as well as collaboration on innovative programs to measure student success and teacher quality.
“We are excited about the opportunities that students will have as a result the collaboration between teachers, the association, administration, the board, MEA, and NEA,” says David Ela, President of the Carrabec Education Association. “We all share the same goal — to bring about increased student achievement.”
A major part of PSC is letting educators – the classroom experts — lead the reforms that will raise student achievement.
“There’s a lot more progress to be made, but many of my colleagues are teaming with me to achieve measurable gains,” says Woodsum. “The culture is changing, slowly perhaps, but changing for the better without a doubt. It’s an exciting time at Carrabec.”
One reason for the wariness is that North Anson hasn’t seen many outsiders settle in their neck of the Maine woods in a long time. The rural part of the state has been in an economic slump for decades, and the recent economic downturn only hastened the decline. Maine was once the largest papermaking state in the country, but most mills have shut down or moved their operations overseas. Lumber and logging were big employers, but the housing and construction industries have slowed to a halt.
Carrabec is in Somerset County, the poorest county in Maine. There are few jobs that don’t require at least an hour commute, and many families are barely scraping by, which has a big impact on the aspirations of the students.
Rosemary Mahoney is the Maine Education Association’s UniServ Director for the district, which serves North Anson, Anson, Embden, New Portland, and Solon. She’s seen firsthand the dedication of rural Maine’s educators and the difference they’re making.
“The economy in the area is depressed. Thankfully we have a really good group of educators who are willing to pitch in and work with the communities to raise student aspirations,” she says. “There is a lot of talent among all the citizens of the district and the community and we are working together to energize and direct that talent toward a more productive future for all stakeholders.”
Getting Kids College Ready
Even though the area is surrounded by some of New England’s finest colleges – Bowdoin, Bates, and Colby are all within a two or three hour drive – there hasn’t been a strong collegiate culture at Carrabec. But it’s not because families don’t want more for their children, says social studies teacher and literacy coach Lisa Savage.
“When do you ever meet a parent who doesn’t want their child to have a better education than they did?” she asks. “Parents are very enthusiastic about their kids going to college, but most of them didn’t go on to college themselves, and because of the price tag, it seems out of reach. Now we’re starting to change that.”
The school has developed partnerships with organizations like the Maine Parent Federation, which sponsors GEAR UP, the federal grant program that provides low-income students the skills, encouragement, and preparation to enter and succeed in postsecondary education.
Maurice Langlois is the GEAR UP Liaison for Carrabec. He was hired as part of its federal school improvement plan to help improve SAT scores – not only do higher SAT scores increase college readiness for students, but in the state of Maine, Annual Yearly Progress at high schools is based on SAT scores.
Langlois is a social studies teacher, but he also does SAT prep tutoring, helps kids in the college search process, and lets them know that the world of higher education is accessible to them.
Carrabec’s Daily Bulletin has an SAT word of the day, and throughout the school are flyers and signs that encourage kids to plan on going to college. “Think You Can’t Go to College?” one flyer asks, then lists common excuses for not going with opposing arguments – like affordability.
“The less money you have,” the flyer explains, “the more you might get in aid to help you pay for college.”
You Don’t Get Success By Making Things Easier
Carrabec High School is also the first school in Maine to use a program called Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, to raise the academic rigor at the school and help more kids achieve.
“AVID is a system aimed at students ‘in the middle’ who have the motivation and ability to take rigorous classes and go to college, but need a support system,” says principal Regina Campbell. “In other words, they should take honors and AP classes but need some help and guidance on how to succeed in those courses.”
The faculty and administration is working together to increase the overall academic rigor of the school and to change the academic culture. “We want to make school cool,” says Savage.
The community supports AVID by providing speakers and summer apprenticeships for AVID students that can sometimes be used as college credit, and parents are involved by attending regular meetings, participating on an advisory board and in AVID Family Workshops. The parents have been so enthusiastic about the program, they voted to increase the quarterly meetings to monthly.
The faculty is also finding ways to increase rigor while providing the necessary supports students need. To continue offering the same courses with the same level of difficulty would assume students couldn’t rise to the challenge, and that would be perpetuating the “That’s Carrabec” reputation.
“You don’t get success by making things easier,” says Savage, who, under the SIG grant, works with other teachers to help them with literacy issues in their classrooms – like helping a math teacher increase reading comprehension of word problems “You get success by making things more challenging, and offering more supports.”
This year Carrabec offers four AP classes; next year there will be seven, and they’ve increased enrollment in AP classes from just three students last year to 76 students this academic year. They’ve added 20 minutes of additional instructional time to the regular school day and expanded summer school. They’ve created a study skills class for students who need the support, and have developed more targeted interventions that happen early in the process.
The teachers are constantly paying attention to progress and struggles, so that they can provide extra support long before a student slips through the cracks.
There’s a Boys’ Book Club (BBC) focused on promoting literacy and raising aspirations for young men, an ongoing young women’s empowerment program, and a student-to-student peer mentoring/tutoring program matching upperclassmen with underclassmen.
The efforts are paying off – failure rates are dropping and more students are succeeding. In the 2009-2010 year, 69 students failed 134 courses. By the following year, those numbers dropped to 33 students failing 49 classes. Comparing fall 2010 PSAT scores to the spring 2011 SAT scores, there was a six percent increase in the number of students who met the proficiency standard.
College Isn’t the Only Option
English teacher Dallas Landry grew up in the area and knows about the struggles of the students. He grew up with five brothers and sisters who shared one bathroom with one toilet – there was no sink or tub; they had to use a bucket for that.
“That’s not uncommon out there even today,” he says. “There are families with four or five kids living in a trailer, and some of them want nothing more than to get out of here.”
That’s why they’ve emphasized college readiness, and SAT prep. But Landry knows that for some, college might not be an option, so he wants to make sure they graduate and find a career.
There are opportunities for vocational education, some that are specific to the region. Students can go to a culinary school and start up restaurants for the many ski tourists who descend on the area every winter — Sugarloaf is right around the corner, and is one of the best ski resorts in the East. There are outdoor education opportunities for students interested in becoming forest rangers or river guides. And there are still some jobs in logging and lumber.
“I had a student pull up to my house on his motorcycle to say hello a while back,” says Landry. “He’s got a good job at a lumberyard and is doing very well. He knew college wasn’t for him, but he’s doing really well for himself.”
One reason more kids are graduating and doing well is the freshmen advisory group, which Landry chairs. Each freshman gets an advisor who helps the student throughout the four years of high school.
“If the advisors are doing their job,” Landry says, “Each one of their students will graduate.”
The best part about the SIG grant and the new PSC program, according to Landry, is the collaboration among faculty and administrators and the opening of dialogue. They talk about how to get all students to graduation, like the advisory program. They talk about what works and about creating common practices, like setting target goals for every class so students know what they need to absorb each day.
“If dialogue between administration and faculty is taking place, you’ve really got something,” he says. “It shouldn’t be them versus us. It’s about the students. We can’t lose sight of why we’re in this business.”
The focus of the faculty and administration has been raising achievement, and the school now has one of the strongest sophomore and junior classes they’ve seen in years. English teacher Doug Woodsum says these students are changing the climate, raising the standards, and challenging the students who still say, “That’s Carrabec.”
This fall in his Honors Sophomore English class, a student shook her head and said “that’s Carrabec” because of some setback that Woodsum doesn’t recall. But what he does remember is that another student immediately confronted her.
“Do you know what you’re saying?” the other student asked. “You’re saying we are dumb. Is that how you feel?”
Woodsum says the girl didn’t really back down, but the whole class was treated to a teachable moment: “One of their own said, in so many words, ‘Don’t cop out. Don’t make excuses. Join the ranks of the hard-working Transformational Model students.’”