SEARSPORT — A grant that started out as funding to help schools teach better remotely during pandemic shutdowns is now helping Regional School Unit 20 rework traditional classroom learning.

The $250,000 Rethinking Responsive Education Venture Grant will help the school develop a curriculum that involves applying more hands-on learning projects rather than relying so heavily on traditional classroom learning, according to Searsport District Middle and High School Principal Joshua Toothaker.

Originally intended to help districts develop a remote learning curriculum after the pandemic first struck in 2020, districts can now use the funds to develop more responsive learning curriculums, he said. Although the grant is still used in part for remote learning, there are also opportunities to develop education components like outdoor learning and play spaces.

“Coming out of the back end of this pandemic and needing to rethink our approach to how we were doing things here, (we’re) really meeting kids where they are in authentic learning opportunities,” Toothaker said.

He and a group of teachers conducted interviews with staff and students about what they felt made them feel most connected and engaged to the school, he said. They felt work that was authentic and connected to real-life applications was most valued.

SDHMS built the REEV Grant proposal around more service learning at the high school and project-based learning in the middle school, he said, though the hub of it all is the outdoor classroom, which district residents approved in the Nov. 8 election. He hopes the classroom will be constructed August 2023 so it can be used next school year. The school will use about $120,000 from the REEV Grant to build it.

The classroom will help get the kids out of the classroom and closer to outdoor learning spaces, one of which is the Millbrook Preserve. It is in preservation through Coastal Mountains Land Trust and located within walking distance from the middle and high schools.

Teachers can use the outdoor classroom as a place to incorporate outdoor aspects into everything they do in all subjects, high school and middle school Technology Integrator Susan Capwell said. It can also be used to store outdoor classroom gear and serve as a meeting point for groups participating in science-based exploration.

“The idea behind the outdoor classroom is that it provides a launching space to get out into our wider campus and into the Millbrook Preserve,” she said.

The brunt of work under the grant, which can be used until June 2024, this year is focusing on staff, making connections to the community with the curriculum and interdisciplinarian projects, Toothaker said. It does not change standards or courses but it changes the “lens” through which the district views those courses.

He has noticed student engagement increase as the schools incorporate more outdoor learning, he said. “It’s the connection and the authenticity that’s really speaking to these students,” he said.

Nick Neises was brought in under a one-year stipend in the grant to help incorporate experiential and hands-on learning, while also helping students on large projects and service learning in the community, he said.

He is developing opportunities for students to work for local businesses through internships, he said. It helps students realize the different types of opportunities in town, Toothaker said.

“Nick’s role has been instrumental over the past two months that he’s been with us in doing that legwork, by going out and being that conduit between the school and local organizations,” he said. “And kind of being the translator between what we need from an educational standpoint here in the building and interfacing with those organizations who may not necessarily know what goes on inside of a school.”

Businesses are “hungry” for prospective new employees and want to see more engagement between local students and organizations, Neises said. “It’s been practically overwhelming the positive response,” he said.

Students have volunteered to help with projects on Sears Island and with the town’s annual Fling into Fall celebration, he said. He hopes to set up several internship opportunities with local businesses that will be available for students starting in the spring semester.

Toothaker hopes this curriculum change is something that can be used with little change year-over-year, eliminating the need to implement teaching approaches that change with new staffing and administrators. The ultimate goal is to provide more consistence for staff and students.

“For me, the hope is that we at this school stop, kind of, chasing new initiatives and we really are looking at committing ourselves to this kind of learning, based upon staff and student feedback,” he said.

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