Wednesday, March 9

Lee Iacocca, John Dewey, and idea who's time has not quite come

I remember Lee Iacocca from commercials in the 80's saying, "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got." Remarkably, he managed to convince the American public that the K-car was the answer, which kept Chrysler afloat until they could invent the minivan segment - which was, after all, a K-car underneath. He also said in those commercials, "Either lead, follow, or get out of the way."

For now, at least, I'm choosing the latter, and putting both Innovation Maine and the project that it grew out of it, Maine Enterprise Schools, on hiatus. For more than two years (or, depending on how you count, 18) I've worked assiduously on both local and state levels with the fundamental assumption that Maine's public schools would be better off leading innovation than having it forced upon them.

Since that day, our approach has depended on negotiating agreements with existing public school districts. We have not accomplished that, despite coming close many times. No agreements for the 2009 school year, for the 2010 school year, or for the 2011 school year. And while we've had credible offers to fund pilots programs as private schools, I've held firm that the work we do must situate these schools as viable options for any student in any community in which we work. As John Dewey wrote nearly 100 years ago, "What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy."

Friday, January 21

The more things change...?

I had no idea the blog had gone quiet for two whole weeks - the number of words I type on a daily basis has certainly increased, not decreased...but they've nearly all been in the service of trying to line up a first site for a Maine Enterprise School.

InnovationMaine started in June as part of a consulting and advocacy contract with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools that ran it's course Dec. 31. I do intend to keep writing; how frequently I can post we'll have to see. But with the last bit of proposal writing done for now, I find myself with a few minutes to reflect: what has changed in the six months since I started writing, what's the same, and what might the future hold?

Friday, January 7

5-year High School Program

Bill Nemitz' column in this morning's PPH quotes Governor LePage saying, "I believe we need to create a five-year high school program in Maine where students can graduate with an associate's degree as a heads-up in going into the workforce or as credit toward a four-year degree at the university or college level." After yesterday's announcement that he intends to make it as hard as possible for both documented and undocumented immigrants and refugees to feel at home in Maine, I was relieved to see something both positive and substantial.

Having worked briefly an Early College High School start-up at Lorraine County Technical College in Ohio, I can attest to the potential - and the challenges - of such approaches. We've learned a lot since then, and the governor and Mr. Fitzsimmons of the Community College system are wise to build on the work of North Carolina, which has gone the farthest and had the most success with this model.

Mr. Fitzsimmons points out that the NC implementation "began with a $21 million grant from the Gates Foundation and each year the legislature allocates $19 million for those new 'early colleges.'" Mr. Nemitz concludes by saying, "'good luck with your base when they realize what it takes, alas, to turn a good-but-complicated idea into simple reality. It's called 'state spending.'"

I'm not so sure - at least not at the levels of North Carolina. I not only think we can do something "good-but-complicated" for far less money, but do so more effectively. Though I was unaware of the 5-year high school design team formed by Mr. Fitzsimmons, it sounds like they're largely on the right track. The question, as Mr. Nemitz points out, is how we get there and how we pay for it.

Thursday, December 30

Private vs. Public

An email from a Maine school superintendent: "John, can you in a few sentences tell me how a private charter school is funded and governed differently that a public charter school?" I think so...depends on what is meant by a "few sentences" and by "private charter school."

A private school is a private school: parents pay tuition, the school selects which kids are accepted and which are not. Hyde School, North Yarmouth Academy, The Center for Teaching and Learning. A public school is, in theory at least, open to any child who lives in the area which that public school serves - and that applies to public charter schools as well. No examples in Maine, 4,936 examples in 40 other states.

Public charter schools are, according to National Alliance for Public Charter Schools:

"independent public schools that are allowed the freedom to be more innovative, while being held accountable for improved student achievement.
  • tuition-free and open to every student who wishes to enroll

  • non-sectarian, and do not discriminate on any basis

  • publicly funded by local, state and federal tax dollars based on enrollment, like other public schools

  • held accountable to state and federal academic standards"

While that should be straightforward, it is not.

Some states allow schools that have previously operated as private schools

Thursday, December 23

Questions about Rural Charters

Nancy from New Sweden, Maine writes with some wonderfully thoughtful questions. Click here to find out where New Sweden is, and it'll give you some idea of the challenges rural schools face.

Here's what I could cobble together for context: New Sweden is part of the four town School Administrative Unit 122 that consists of two K-8 schools; Woodland's serves 132 kids and and New Sweden's serves 82, both including pre-K. The schools are 8 miles apart.

Though it's not clear from the website, I'm assuming students in grades 9-12 attend either Caribou High School or the K-12 Limestone Community School, both roughly 10 miles away and part of Eastern Aroostook RSU, a recently consolidated district that also includes two primary schools, one serving pre-K through 2nd grade and another serving grades 3-5, a middle school and a high school. The schools "serve over 1600 students and employ 250 professionals," or one adult for every 6.5 kids.

An interesting side note is that Limestone shares it's facility with the Maine School of Science and Mathematics, an application-only magnet school serving 130 students grades 10-12 from across Maine. MSSM is publicly financed, but is independent from any individual school district.

On to Nancy's questions:

How would it be determined if the schools produce "quality opportunities and results"? How long would they be given to show those results? And compared to what (if only as they're relevant to kids and families in town, then why are we looking at state/national results now?)

Wednesday, December 22

Rural Charter Schools work!

This story from Oregon gives lots of hope for those in small communities in Maine that may, or in some cases already have, seen their schools close.

"With dwindling enrollment and a state funding crisis, Hughes told community members the 130-student K-12 school -- split between two buildings -- would likely have to close its doors within two to three years. Now, nearly three years later, Elkton has new computers, new curriculum and materials and nearly 80 new students.

What changed? Elkton became a charter school."

Sunday, December 19

Charter schools suddenly 'relevant'

The charter school meeting hosted by the Maine Association of Charter Schools did indeed make clear that charters are relevant and that they are likely to happen. The 50 or so folks gathered on Thursday represented a very broad spectrum - legislators, school superintendents and potential charter school operators.

What was most exciting about the meeting is the degree to which folks who might not be seen as allies on most issues were able to find genuine common ground on the need to innovate. I spoke with a newly elected Republican legislator and a long-time liberal activist who were agreeing word for word with each other on how a well-structured charter law could help meet the needs of the young people in their very similar towns.

What continues to be discouraging is the lack of sophistication of some of the public debate surrounding charters, which came through quite loudly in the Portland Press Herald's article. My problem here is not with Mr. Stone's reporting - he has to report what is being said, and did a much better job of highlighting some of the many variables, rather than just perpetuating the myths.