Phoenix rising; Once-foundering Searsport High School restores its quality, spirit thanks to community involvement, state grant

This story was published on Nov. 22, 2004 on Page A1 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

Seven years after losing accreditation, Searsport District High School is back on top, poised to become a model of cutting-edge educational reform.

“We’re like a phoenix that has risen from the ashes,” said Principal Gregg Palmer.

The school, which lost accreditation in 1997 because of a crumbling facility, also underwent a rapid turnover of superintendents at the same time. School spirit plummeted.

But all that has changed.

Accreditation was restored last June, thanks to a successful community effort that resulted in the school’s renovation and expansion.

Along the way, the school’s academic program was reevaluated, thanks in part to a five-year, $400,000 Great Maine Schools grant the school received last year.

“We’re really pushing the envelope,” Palmer said recently as he listed the innovative changes that are in the works or already in place, aiming to increase community involvement, make learning more relevant and help students be successful after graduation.

The school, which serves 275 students from the SAD 56 mem-

ber communities of Searsport, Stockton Springs and Frankfort, has:

. Established a permanent “sister” relationship with the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice – a public school in Brooklyn, N.Y.

. Hired a volunteer from the AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America program to serve as coordinator to develop a network of community volunteers and mentors.

. Created a “senior experience” where students may job-shadow someone in whose career they are interested, pursue a hobby, volunteer in the community, take college classes, or intern at a local business.

The school also is creating “learning centers” – new types of learning opportunities for students such as a radio station and a darkroom – that could also be used as community resources. Students are helping to design the centers, which will provide alternatives to traditional classes and emphasize real-world problem solving.

In addition, the school is developing a new governance system in which students and community representatives – including three area businesspeople – will join teachers and administrators in discussing disciplinary matters and providing feedback on issues including curriculum and graduation requirements. Students and community representatives also will help review and approve proposals submitted by anyone in the school or by local residents. Among the proposals already submitted are ones that would allow students to wear hats in school and leave campus during study hall.

Down the road, plans call for eliminating the traditional credit system and creating local academic standards to complement Maine Learning Results standards. Students will demonstrate that they have met the standards through a variety of methods, including projects and demonstrations.

Managed by the George J. Mitchell Institute in Portland and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Great Maine Schools grants aim to help schools become more challenging, relevant and interesting, and to provide a wide range of models for what high schools might look like in the future.

Searsport received the award last year because the changes it proposed were closely aligned with those recommended in a high school improvement report, titled Promising Futures, issued by the Maine Department of Education in 1998, according to Pam Fisher of the Mitchell Institute.

The school said it wanted, among other things, a rigorous curriculum for all students in a personalized environment, she said. “They made some very bold steps and they demonstrated the commitment and capacity through leadership to pull that off,” said Fisher, who is overseeing the Great Maine Schools grant program.

The proposed academic reforms came about as part of the school’s reaccreditation efforts, said Deb Middleswart, a Searsport Middle School teacher who spearheaded the community drive to fix up the school.

To regain accreditation, the school had to evaluate everything from curriculum to community involvement to assessments, she said. Aiming to offer “the best education we could, we decided to raise the bar and make some innovative reforms.”

Palmer believes the learning centers will help students become more engaged in school and, thus, less inclined to drop out. The centers also will become a community resource.

For example, students now are learning how to run a radio station that eventually will involve residents who could produce jazz programs or shows about bird watching.

“People from our three towns will beam programs for people in our three towns,” he said.

The relationship with the New York school will prepare Maine students to broaden their horizons, according to Palmer.

“It’s a way to expose them to the world, to another culture, another set of experiences, and ultimately to a whole new set of opportunities,” he said. “We want our kids to feel comfortable going out in the world and succeeding.”

Students from New York are scheduled to visit in January and some from Searsport will travel to New York in May. The plan is to go beyond the school and have artists, businesspeople and others from the community participating in the exchange, he said.

Ashley Ward, a junior, said students decided on the Brooklyn school for a number of reasons. “We wanted it different than us,” she said, noting that the sister school is urban, with students who are primarily Latino and black.

Understanding different cultures and perspectives is sure to teach valuable lessons, Palmer said. New points of view represented on the governance council also will be beneficial, he said.

The new governance system “trusts that students are reasonable people who want to do what’s best for the school and have opinions that need to be shared,” he said. The aim of the governance council also is to enable students to become more confident about their ability to make judgments and control their own destiny.

Michael Adams, a senior who hopes to serve on the committee, likes the idea of giving students “more input on how things are run. We should know what’s going on in school,” he said. “Sometimes things happen behind the scenes and kids don’t know about it.”

Finding businesspeople to serve on the council proved simple, said VISTA coordinator Stephen Allen. “The first three I went to all wanted to jump on the bandwagon. ‘When does it leave – let me jump on,'” he said, describing their reaction.

Involving businesses with the school makes sense, said Albert Putnam, owner of Coastal Coffee in downtown Searsport, who agreed to serve on the council.

“As a business we definitely have a vested interest. If good things are happening in school, it means good things are happening in town, which means pride in the community,” he said.

Teacher Kathleen Jenkins said she designed senior experience to help students in their last year of high school – many of whom have already fulfilled their academic requirements – “stay invested in their education. They get to do something they’re interested in, gain responsibility and independence, and start thinking about postsecondary goals,” she said. Students are required to keep a journal and make a presentation to parents and teachers.

Through senior experience, Kyle Dunbar is gaining valuable career skills repairing computers at a local business. If not for the program, he’d be “doing a study hall or wasting time. Now I can get out and do things I enjoy,” said the young man, who plans to study computer repair at Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor next year.

SAD 56 Superintendent Mary Szwec praised Searsport for “being progressive and looking at what changes need to happen at high school to get kids ready for the 21st century.” She took on the position as superintendent this year, in part because she was intrigued by the high school’s innovative plans, which give students “a lot of true life experiences. If we want students to make decisions, we need to put them in roles in which they can understand that concept.”

Across the state and the country, people are looking to Searsport for advice. Students recently spoke about their reforms in San Francisco at a national school conference and in Presque Isle at a gathering of Aroostook County schools.

“We’re becoming a model of how to change high schools,” said Palmer.

Changes are happening because of a principal who’s “willing to stick his neck out and think outside the box,” and because of teachers who are “willing to take risks,” said teacher Marti Stamp.

“We’re not all young puppies either – a good chunk of us are in our late 40s and 50s,” she said. “But all of us are willing to try something new.”


Leslie Gregory, director of the Performance Accountable Resource Center at Searsport District High School, consults with senior Rebecka Ripley, 17, on Ripley’s senior experience project focusing on education. Working on his guitar riffs in the background is senior Jarrett Snowman, 18, who elected to learn guitar in the PARC program.

A1 for Monday, Nov. 22, 2004

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