If you need a reason to be inspired today, look to Eastport. The town of 1,300 people and the surrounding area are dreaming big for their young people, who will shape the region’s future.
Out of more than 700 initial applications, Shead High School in Eastport is one of 50 finalists in a national competition for $10 million over five years to transform how it educates students. In May it made the semifinals cut to 348 schools. Now it has just one more round to go, with five winners to be announced Aug. 4.
Whether or not the high school of 103 students wins one of the five available $10 million awards from the XQ Super School Project, which was created by the XQ Institute and funded by Steve Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, it has shown leadership, collaboration and determination to be proud of. The school is showing it’s necessary and possible to change systems that can seem entrenched.
“Our system of schooling was designed for an economy that doesn’t exist anymore,” said Benjamin Brigham, who teaches English at the high school and is the technology coordinator. He’s also the 2015 Washington County Teacher of the Year.
“As technology has brought rapid change to our economy, we schools need to be willing to adapt and change to make sure [students are] equipped not for the world as it used to be but for the world as they’re going to find it,” he said.
If the school wins the money, Shead would create a project-based learning system — essentially a “school within a school” — that students would opt into. As part of the new approach, students would propose projects they found interesting or ask big questions — such as, “How can Maine maintain a stable fishery?” — and then work with a faculty guide to research and answer the question.
Students at the proposed Pacific Atlantic Community Technology, or PACT, school Shead would create would use technology to connect with partner schools in California and to help them follow where their questions lead. Students would become inquisitive investigators, work in real-world teams and learn the tools necessary to shape their projects.
Shead decided to go this route after talking with students — an essential yet often neglected building block of school reform. When asked, students often said school simply wasn’t interesting.
“That disconnect between school and the world after school is really what is making a lot of students not find themselves fully engaged,” Brigham said.
Boredom is a common occurrence in U.S. classrooms. Indiana University Bloomington surveyed thousands of high school students in 27 states from 2006 to 2009 and found two-thirds reported being bored in class at least once a day.
But students also told researchers what motivated them: being creative and intellectually challenged.
“Discussion and debate is still one of the highest rated kinds of teaching, as are group projects,” Ethan Yazzie-Mintz, project director of the national survey, said. “Technology projects, art and drama projects also have a good number of kids saying they really like this type of teaching.”
In developing its plans, Shead also talked with the community, which could earn a huge boost from the prize of $2 million per year. (The entire district’s K-12 budget for 2016-2017 is $2.4 million.) People said they wanted their sons and daughters to be engaged in their learning and to develop the skills they’ll need for the future.
“We all want a brighter life for our children,” Brigham said.
This competition is about the students and communities of Eastport, Pleasant Point, Perry, Pembroke, Robbinston, Edmunds and Charlotte, but it’s also about something larger: It’s possible to reimagine the future.
Often people might think they can’t do much to change the course of their communities or lives, when in fact they’re the best for the job.
As Brigham said, “although we’re a little small town, we can do great things and get the attention of the world.”