Mariah Albanese plans to take a college creative writing course next spring, and said because of her experiences at Searsport District High School, she’s fully prepared for the next phase of her education.

Not bad for someone who’s just finishing up her sophomore year in high school, said Searsport High School Dean of Students Ruth Fitzpatrick.

“She’ll be a junior and she’ll already be starting her college education,” said Fitzpatrick during a Wednesday, May 30, interview with The Journal.

That’s not uncommon for a lot of Searsport High School students. In fact, Fitzpatrick said, the expectations are high for everyone who attends the high school, no matter what their background, aspirations or learning abilities.

The findings in a recent study conducted by the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation (CEPARE) at the University of Southern Maine and the Maine Education Policy Research Institute — as well as feedback from members of the research team — support what Searsport’s administrators say about the direction of the high school over the last decade.

Following a two-day study at the high school in April, Fitzpatrick said she asked visiting CEPARE researchers Erika Stump and Lori Gunn to offer one word they felt described their impressions of the environment at the high school. The word they chose, Fitzpatrick recalled, was “equity.”

“When I asked what really jumped out at them, it was that all students, no matter what their situation was, all had equal opportunities to get a good education,” Fitzpatrick said.

A move to improve

The Study of Improving Maine High Schools report is the result of a request from the Maine Legislature as part of an effort to learn more about practices and characteristics associated with Maine high schools that have shown academic growth in recent years. According to the report, the study is intended to identify “some practices and attributes that have helped these schools to improve student performance.”

Fitzpatrick said the CEPARE researchers interviewed staff, administrators and parents, observed classroom practices, and sat in on grade level team meetings at each of the participating schools.

“They went everywhere from Aroostook County to Southern Maine, and everywhere in between,” said Fitzpatrick of the study’s scope. “And we’re very excited about the things they had to say about us.”

The report breaks out seven characteristics that the researchers noted are common for improving schools: Student-focused learning communities with systematic evidence of intellectual work, equity and efficiency; visible change that symbolizes significant and sustained reform; focused, effective staff leaders; thorough and sustained learning for school professionals, and holding steady on student and adult learning.

The report stated that Searsport District High School has shown “considerable evidence” of the characteristics regarding the school’s promotion of intellectual work, equity and sustained learning for school professionals, “some evidence” of efficiency and “extensive evidence” of sustained school reform, effective school leaders among the staff and maintaining a steady focus on student and adult learning.

Principal Brian Campbell said the study is especially meaningful, in part, because it acknowledges the commitment the staff has to made to each Searsport High School student.

“It’s nice to have someone from outside our school come in and look at the processes we use, to see that we have high expectations for all students to learn, and that we have processes in place for all of our students to be successful,” he said. “It’s a nice pick-me-up to the staff.”

A hand up, not a hold-up

English and language arts teacher Kathleen Jenkins said the study also reaffirms the validity of educational practices at the high school, including heterogeneous grouping and offering immediate interventions for students who may be struggling.

And she said the students are responding well to the high school’s methods regarding standards-based education, such as knowing what educational standards they are supposed to meet by the time they complete a course or classroom assignment through the use of upfront criteria called rubrics.

“The reforms we’ve tackled have kind of cleared away the mystery for the students,” she said.

Campbell said the grading system reflects the school-wide belief that learning is a process that doesn’t always instantly produce the desired result. For example, a student may begin a semester of physics and receive a grade of 2 on a project, meaning the student is not yet proficient in an aspect of the course. But, Campbell said, the lower grade won’t bring down the student’s overall marks because students typically achieve higher grades by the end of the semester. The final score is the grade they will end up with, not an average of all marks they may have earned over their entire time in the class.

Another unique aspect of the learning environment at the high school is immediate intervention.

Jenkins said if a student is falling behind on a course because they are having difficulty understanding the material, there are many chances for that student to sit with their teacher and catch up on the lesson prior to the next class. There is a period of time set aside during the school day for such interventions, and the same offerings are set up during lunchtime, after school and in a summer school program.

“A lot of it is student-initiated,” said Jenkins of the students’ participation in the intervention programs. “… It really cuts back on the need [for a student] to repeat a class.”

Campbell also said the interventions are designed to keep students moving ahead in their studies, even if there is one portion of a course they continue to struggle with at the end of the year.

“It’s about meeting a standard with proficiency, not about holding a student back,” he said.

Life after SDHS

SDHS School Coach Gerry Crocker, who works with the school through an organization known as the Great Schools Partnership, offers technical support, resources and professional development opportunities for high school staff.

Crocker most recently assisted in writing a Nellie Mae grant that the students are benefiting from these days, and she hopes to see the resulting partnerships with local businesses, colleges and the community improve college attendance rates and increase the number of Searsport graduates who complete their college educations.

“The graduation rate has increased a lot, but the college-going rates and college persistence rates are still less than the state of Maine, on average,” she said.

The idea is to introduce students to the post-secondary experience through early college classes, as well as internships and mentorships with local professionals and the addition of an “Intro to College 101” course.

“It’ll tell them about the skills they need, how to advocate for themselves and how to navigate a college campus,” said Crocker.

Albanese credited the way education is executed at SDHS for her success in the classroom and beyond. Albanese said the lessons she’s learned at SDHS helped her approach a recent job interview with confidence and poise, and left her feeling fully prepared for starting her college career next year.

“I really believe if I didn’t go to this school, I wouldn’t have done as well as I have,” said Albanese. “This school is the reason I feel successful.”