Skip to content
Aurora Institute

Biddeford School District: Never Unpack Alone

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

Maine Road TripThis post is part of the series Road Trip to Maine.

Dan Joseph, Reinventing Schools Coalition/Marzano Research Lab, suggested I visit with Jeremy Ray, Superintendent of Biddeford School Department, to learn about how they were progressing toward proficiency-based diplomas. The conversation included Margaret Pitts, Principal, Biddeford Primary School; Lindsey Nadeau, Early Childhood Coordinator, JFK Memorial School (kindergarten); Kyle Keenan, Principal, Biddeford Middle School; Mary Bellavance, Instructional Coach at the Middle School and a contributor to CompetencyWorks; Deb Kenney, Principal, Biddeford Intermediate School ; and Paulette Bonneau, Principal, Biddeford Regional Center of Technology. Thanks so much to all of you!

Biddeford is a small district serving a town of 21,000. The student enrollment is approximately 2,600 with about 60 percent FRL. Ray described that although they aspire to higher student achievement, “those kids who go to college tend to stay.” Thus, driving their focus is a strong emphasis on improving achievement and expanding the numbers of students going to college. Already there are signs they are moving in the right direction – Pitts mentioned that the proficiency-based instruction along with strong RTI has resulted in a decrease of third graders who will need intervention next year. Biddeford is already seeing signs of an upward trajectory.

Ramping Up

Ray explained they didn’t jump to the RISC model. He believes that change starts with people. He wanted to make sure that principals would trust the RISC staff. Dan Joseph joined two leadership team meetings before a contract with RISC was established and he began working with teachers.

Biddeford made a decision to focus the community engagement at the school level rather than district. It was a strategic choice for Biddeford. The state policy requires districts to create proficiency-based diplomas, so there is less demand for community-wide engagement to move forward. Yet, community engagement is important for building a shared vision and embracing the new values. Given that Maine takes local control very seriously, it made sense to use an even more decentralized strategy. Keenan explained that they started with having schools engage their parent communities about what is best for our kids.

Ray also believes that “the quickest thing to get a thing killed is to name it.” With the support of the Biddeford School Board, he made sure the message was clear that proficiency-based learning is not an initiative or a fad. This is based on what is best for children.

Starting with K-8

It made sense for Biddeford to start with K-8, as it was already comfortable with standards-based education. Furthermore, high schools add a layer of complexity to change: Maine state policy starts the clock ticking when a student enters ninth grade by only calculating a four-year graduation cohort and counting students who need a fifth year as a drop-out. Thus, they are often the most intransigent to change.

Bellavance pointed out, “It also helps to get students to be your advocates. If they are comfortable with personalized, proficiency-based learning, when they enter high school they’ll be asking teachers, ‘Can I show my evidence of understanding?’ ‘Where is my capacity matrix?’ and ‘I’ve completed this unit, can I advance to the next unit now?’ It’s a lot easier for teachers to make the transition if students already know the system.”

Preparing the High School for the Transition

The implementation work in the high school is still in the preparation stage. Joseph is unpacking the standards, working with PLCs to review courses, and beginning the iterative process of alignment between power standards, rubrics, and assessments.

They have also modified their block schedule a bit, adding capacity for students to receive more targeted instruction in reading and math. Customized Learning Blocks are available to all students, with those who are struggling in the foundational skills offered access to more support. Support can come from target tutoring or adaptive software including Accuplacer. BHS is also courageously confronting substance abuse issues by providing a counselor for students falling behind because of drugs and alcohol.

Preparing Teachers and Staff

As I’ve learned in my travels in Maine, collaboratives are seen as a way to share learning and costs. About two years ago, Biddeford formed the Saco Bay Educational Alliance with four other districts: Wells, Old Orchard Beach (RSU-23), Kennebunk (RSU-21), and Saco. This has been helpful for people playing key roles, such as curriculum coordinators, to have a chance to understand the major activities in introducing PBL and the implications.

Biddeford also turned to teacher leaders, called Pathfinders, to help lead the change. Once again, they started off in K-8, but Pathfinders have started to introduce PBL in high school this year.

Nadeau was a Pathfinder before taking leadership in the kindergarten classrooms. She described that all the Pathfinders received three days of training from RISC on 1) classroom delivery and design and 2) instructional design. They then received additional training on coaching so they would feel comfortable coaching their colleagues. In 2014, training started with twenty-four K-8 teachers. By the end of August 2015, nearly all K-8 teachers have had training in classroom delivery and design and about half have had instructional design.

As Bellavance explained, “It’s exploding. There are shifts happening all over the district. You can see it every day. Teachers are getting comfortable with the new ways to manage their classroom and introducing greater personalization. Teachers are reviewing the standards with their colleagues and pulling out the foundational knowledge. One of our sayings is Never unpack alone.”

The Pathfinder model has been so successful at Biddeford that it has become part of the culture. A sixth-grade student told Nadeau, “I’m a Pathfinder. When I was in fifth grade I learned how to use Standard Operating Procedures and unpack standards and how to level up.” Note the phrase “level up” – I think it is one that we might be hearing more of as students take on more responsibility for their learning. They’ll let their teachers know when they are ready to level up to the next learning target, i.e., they will know when they are reaching proficiency and have evidence to demonstrate it.

The next stage of work at K-8 is to strengthen instruction by building the capacity to use learning progressions. (For more on the topic of learning progressions, see Achieve’s briefing paper and this blog for more resources.)

On the Skills Needed to Be an Effective Learner

Biddeford is, as are many districts, beginning to work through how to think and use Habits of Work and Learning. Keenan explained, “We have a code of cooperation in each classroom and learning goals are transparent K-8. Students are learning that they are responsible for their learning.”

For anyone not familiar with the shared vision and code of cooperation, teachers facilitate a conversation with students at the beginning of the year about why they are there, what it means to be a learner, and how they can create a set of rules that guide the classroom. This creates a strong culture of learning within each classroom based on respect and explicit explanation of the behaviors needed to have a culture of culture. Based on the teacher and the students in the class, the language and emphasis may vary. As one person pointed out, “The way we get to a shared vision is through the code of cooperation.”

In grades four and five, they are also using Positive Behavior, Interventions, and Support consistently. At the middle school, they want to focus on Habits of Work and Learning. Keenan explained that the codes of cooperation use “I Can” statements that teachers and students are using to assess students’ Habits of Work and Learning.

Standards and Standards-Based Grading

Biddeford didn’t switch to standards-based grading overnight. They introduced the idea to parents over the course of two years. They wanted to make sure parents understood that standards help teachers and students become more intentional in the learning, and that traditional A-F grades have so much subjectivity they often tell you very little about how your student is progressing. Again, Biddeford’s strategy was to have each school engage their parents in this communication rather than rely on a district-wide process. Another step was to create a district-wide report card to use for K-8. Up until that time, each school had a different report card.

Going Forward

Below is a short list of a few of things that Biddeford is focusing on in the near future.

  • I Can: Kenney explained that in K-5 they would be moving toward “I Can” statements on reports cards to describe progress in learning from which standards would be linked. “I Can statements are meaningful for students and easier for parents to understand.”
  • Getting the IT Right: They have purchased a product to support standards-based grading. However, like most other information management systems used to monitor student progress, it is “clunky” for creating student-centered learner profiles that show how students are progressing over time.
  • Vertical Alignment: Teachers are beginning to look at the standards and to calibrate vertically, especially around the transitions between schools. They want to address any gaps as well as calibrate the understanding of proficiency.
  • Organizing Schools around Students: Currently, the middle school students arrive at school at 7:10. A regional school committee workshop is being formed to talk about a later start time for middle and high school. The research suggests that it improves children wellness and boosts achievement.
  • A Closer Look at Transitions: The district also wants to look more closely at the number of transitions students make (K, 1-3, 4-5, 6-8, 9-12) and consider the impact on students during their vertical profession. They want to see how the transitions are effecting students, explore strategies for supporting students through the transition, and determine if there should be fewer.

Advising Others

When I asked the group what they might advise another small district that was getting ready to make the transformation to proficiency-based learning, their recommendations included:

  • Make sure you articulate the why – to teachers, parents, and students. Why is this good for kids? Why are we making this change?
  • Make sure principals get training on it first. Don’t expect principals to be able to guide their schools if they don’t understand what a personalized, proficiency-based system is and will require.
  • Empower a group of teachers first. They found that their Pathfinder model is making a difference in helping proficiency-based learning take root.
  • Take it slow with a lot of support. Give the teachers the time they need. In other words “Slow is fast.”
  • Really pay attention to the culture in your school and make sure it is a culture of learning and collaboration. You will want to jump into the standards and aligning instruction, assessments, and rubrics. However, it is important to spend the time to build a culture of learning in your school that is transparent and supportive of learning.
  • Listen to teachers and acknowledge where they are at. Listen to your school leadership and figure out how to meet their needs.

The enthusiasm for PBL at Biddeford is clear. At the end of the meeting, there was a unanimous declaration of “We are all in.”

See also: