March 22, 2019
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How one Maine school district fixed a broken consolidation plan

Heather Steeves | BDN
Heather Steeves | BDN
This file photo from 2011 shows students from Oceanside High School in Rockland boarding buses after the first day of school together for 10th- through 12th-graders from the former Rockland District and Georges Valley high schools.

ROCKLAND, Maine — When School Administrative Districts 5 and 50 combined to form Regional School Unit 13 just less than 10 years ago, the unified district faced an uphill battle.

The early years of RSU 13 were plagued with a leadership crisis, both within district administration and on the school board. The towns grappled with giving up local control of the schools that were a part of their identity. Curriculum reform and school consolidation lacked a clear vision — a problem that was not aided by the rapid turnover of superintendents.

The new district was not alone in the struggles it faced in the wake of the 2007 school consolidation law, which penalized Maine school districts that did not consolidate.

But during the past three years, things have begun to turn around for RSU 13, as it appears the district has finally found its footing under a curriculum and facilities plan that aims to prioritize student needs above cost containment, make the district’s facilities more efficient, and put social and emotional learning on par with traditional academics.

“To go from where we were, to where we are now, is literally a 180-degree move,” RSU 13 school board chairman Loren Andrews said.

After nine years, consolidation will finally be complete this fall when two elementary schools merge into the newly built Ash Point Community School in Owls Head and RSU 13’s central office moves from the McLain School in Rockland to the building that formerly housed Rockland’s elementary school.

With building consolidation and other efficiencies saving the district more than $2 million annually, and several new curriculum initiatives — such as the high school’s academy model — off to a good start, RSU 13 officials are finally feeling good about its future.

A district ‘in name only’

RSU 13 serves the towns of Rockland, Thomaston, South Thomaston, Cushing and Owls Head. Rockland, Owls Head and South Thomaston made up the former SAD 5, and Thomaston, St. George and Cushing formerly made up SAD 50. St. George withdrew from RSU 13 in 2015.

Andrews, who has been on the RSU 13 board since its creation in 2008, identifies the hiring of current superintendent John McDonald as the major turning point for the district.

“He has a personality which is remarkably decent, solid and full of integrity,” Andrews said.

When McDonald was hired in June 2014, RSU 13 had gone through two superintendents and three interim superintendents in the five years the district existed.

“I looked at RSU 13 as sort of these two districts that really hadn’t had much experience with each other and had sort of been put together,” McDonald said. “A lot of things had been done in name only, but a lot of the real work, which is communication and collaboration, hadn’t happened.”

In the first years after consolidation, RSU 13 officials were wary of merging schools. District leaders knew they needed to be sensitive to communities that were used to local control of their schools, Andrews said. At first, it was purely an administrative consolidation.

But in the years following consolidation, several grades were shuffled and a controversial split high school was established in 2011. At that time, each community had its own elementary school; there were two middle schools serving grades five through seven; Oceanside West located in Thomaston served grades eight and nine; and Oceanside East in Rockland served grades 10 through 12.

The reorganization and merging of high schools created widespread backlash, including a funeral procession for the Rockland District High School mascot, and parents of St. George eighth-graders leaving school board meetings in tears when faced with the prospect of their children being taken out of the local K-8 school.

“There were parents saying, ‘I love our local high school, I don’t want my kids to go to a bigger school with kids from other towns,’ and I think that occurred on both sides,” Andrews said.

But from the perspective of students in RSU 13 now, the merging of the districts created new opportunities for friendships, for clubs and for sports.

Seniors currently at Oceanside High School had their first experience with consolidation when they attended Oceanside West ― the short-lived eighth- and ninth-grade school in Thomaston. The disjointed high school left much to be desired in terms of students feeling like they belonged to a high school, according to seniors Titus Kaewthong, Taylor Hamlin, Jack Freeman and Kristina Ferguson.

However, the new faces and experiences were a boon for the students at the middle school level. Hamlin said there was more “drama” at the high school level at that time, but that has since gone extinct.

“It was exciting to go to a place and be with kids you haven’t been with before and have new experiences and make new friends. It was more fun than it was, ‘Oh, they’re from Rockland,” Ferguson of St. George said.

To maintain local control over its K-8 school, St. George withdrew from RSU 13 in 2015. St. George now operates as its own municipal school unit, paying for its students to attend Medomak Valley High School in Waldoboro, Oceanside High School or Camden Hills Regional High School.

Since she was already in Oceanside High School when St. George whithrew, Ferguson said she and many of her St. George friends chose to stay at Oceanside. However, now, she said St. George students like having more choices of where they can attend high school.

Around the time St. George withdrew, Rockland and Thomaston explored the process of withdrawal, though it ultimately did not happen.

During the 2012-13 fiscal year, the state removed the penalties associated with the 2007 school consolidation law. Since 2013, 33 Maine towns have withdrawn from the regional school units they joined. Seven more towns are slated to withdraw from their regional districts on July 1, 2018, according to the Maine Department of Education.

McDonald came to RSU 13 after serving as the assistant superintendent the Belfast-area RSU 20, which at the time of his departure was going through a large withdrawal process.

He acknowledges that districts like RSU 13 and RSU 20 were not alone in their consolidation struggles. While finding cost savings is important, McDonald said, the statewide implementation of consolidation was “horrible.”

“[Consolidation] happened too fast, and it happened without much forethought to sort out the cultural and social aspects apart from education that would have to be reckoned with in order to make [consolidation] successful,” McDonald said.

‘Schools of Our Future’

In 2016, RSU 13 restructured its schools — a move that the school board had been planning since the year before McDonald’s arrival.

The split high school was unified into one grade nine through 12 school in Rockland called simply Oceanside High School. Oceanside Middle School, located in Thomaston, serves as the only middle school for the district serving students in grades six through eight. Thomaston, Rockland and Cushing each have their own K-5 schools.

Once the high school became a traditional 9-12 school, students said Oceanside began to feel more like a unified high school. “I feel like we missed out on a year of high school our freshman year,” Kaewthong said.

“Being a freshman at [Oceanside West] we lost so many opportunities,” Hamlin said. “It was just a hassle. So having everyone here is a lot more convenient and makes sense.”

The consolidation of South Thomaston’s elementary school, Gilford Butler, and Owls Head’s elementary school, Owls Head Central School, into the Ash Point Community School will make the school reorganization complete.

Construction costs for the Ash Point Community School are being paid with a $23.3 million bond passed by voters last year, which also includes funding for an overhaul of Oceanside High School and Oceanside Middle school.

The district will start repaying the bond in 2021, at a cost of $1.5 million annually, though the cost will be covered by savings the district has found through reducing the number of facilities and upgrading the district’s energy systems. Those savings total about $2.5 million per year, McDonald said.

The facilities upgrades are part of a larger vision unveiled by the district about three years ago. The plan, called “Schools of Our Future,” is the comprehensive vision that the district needed, Andrews said.

Fitting on one double-sided piece of paper, in the Schools of Our Future plan, the district has outlined the facilities changes and upgrade projects along with the curriculum and instruction objectives RSU 13 is working to incorporate into its schools.

“[The plan] was clear and strong and smart and efficient,” Andrews said.

Considering the upheaval that RSU 13 had gone through, McDonald said the plan was well received. He feels this was due largely to the time officials took to gather input on what people wanted the school system to be and offer, as well as its focus on how it will directly benefit the education of students.

“I think it’s because we led with curriculum and instruction and what we want to do with the kids — not ‘How are we going to save money?’ but ‘What does this mean for your child?” McDonald said.

The curriculum initiatives are still in their infancy, but district officials are happy with early results.

At Oceanside High School, newly implemented academy tracks offer students the opportunity to specialize in a specific area and graduate with an endorsement. Academy offerings include the Liberal Arts Academy, Fisherman’s Academy and STEAM Academy.

First-year students coming into Oceanside High School participate in the freshman academy, which essentially creates an individualized program for each student in which their performance is charted and a focus is put on relationships between students and faculty

In a presentation to the Rockland City Council last month, McDonald said with this model, 85 percent of freshmen are passing all four core classes — up from 45 percent.

“The kids are super challenged and love it [at the high school], and that has not been the reputation of Oceanside or Rockland District High School before,” Andrews said. “If you want to take classes and do stuff you are super challenged and you are engaged, and it’s wonderful.”

Across the district, a focus is also being put on social and emotional learning practices, something McDonald has worked with as an administrator and an educator throughout his career.

At the core of this type of education model is relationships, according to McDonald. Social and emotional learning puts developing healthy communication and decision-making practices on par with academics.

“If a student is engaged, interested and they feel like they are supported and valued, they’re going to work much harder and feel much better about their educational opportunities,” McDonald said.

With the impending 15-month overhaul of Oceanside High School, the opening of a brand-new elementary school and new curriculum practices underway, McDonald said for now, RSU 13 is just trying to stay the course.

“Really, what we want to have are great schools,” McDonald said. “Schools that staff and students love to be in and schools that the communities are proud of.”

Despite all the challenges the district has faced, school pride is abundant, a quality that Freeman argues sets RSU 13 apart from neighboring school districts.

“I don’t think you look at a kid now and say, ‘Oh, he’s a Rockland kid,’ or ‘Oh, he’s a Thomaston kid.’ It’s just an Oceanside kid now,” Freeman said. “O-Side pride.”

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