"Schools need to be changed community by community, school by school, and classroom by classroom."
Imagine a traditional high school principal and someone like Piscataquis's Norman Higgins is likely to come to mind. Conservatively dressed, hair neatly trimmed, carefully spoken, he believes that every high school student should be exposed to a common core of academic learning.
Looks, however, can be deceptive. Behind the traditional facade lies an education revolutionary who has turned his school upside down to improve learning, helped develop Maine's Common Core of Learning, and advanced many of the same ideas on the national stage through Prisoners of Time.
In 1989, worried about poor test scores and an increase in dropout rates in this isolated, low-income, rural area of Maine, Higgins and his faculty sought an $8,000 grant to implement a core curriculum in ninth grade. Armed with that success and a vision (Project 2000) of extending it throughout the school, Higgins sought major funding from the RJR Nabisco Foundation. Among the key elements of Project 2000:
"Schools need to be changed community by community, school by school, and classroom by classroom," says Higgins in his distinctive Maine accent. "This is a grass-roots effort."
The requirements at Piscataquis Community High School (PCHS) are rigorous. Students are expected to take particular courses and to gain particular information from each of them. Home economics and industrial arts are not offered at PCHS. Classroom desks have been replaced with tables for group discussion. Students design and build model bridges to integrate mathematics in their studies, talk to each other over computer and telecommunications lines, work in groups, or participate in a host of fine arts activities from band to drawing.
"What we have tried to do is increase the academic expectations for students," says Higgins. "All students now study Shakespeare, write poetry and essays, and take algebra, chemistry and physics. Within the core courses, we also have raised the expectations for performance so that we have eliminated those general, vocational, and business programs."
Each student is required to complete two years of wellness, three years each of mathematics and science, four years of English, two years of U. S. history, American government and world cultures, an introductory technology course, a word-processing class, a computer applications class, and fine arts. Starting in 1993-94, all freshmen are required to take either Spanish or French.
The core curriculum is the focus of the academic day at PCHS. There are no home rooms and no activity periods. But long after the academic day ends, the school lights continue to burn in the school's classrooms. In the heart of a winter evening on the deserted streets of Guilford, when a visitor asks where all the people are, Higgins can reply without fear of contradiction: "They are all at the school."
Keeping the school open longer permits hundreds of adults in the Guilford area to earn associate's degrees or take one of many classes offered under an adult education program.
Students and adults in the Guilford area have been big winners in the PCHS makeover. But the biggest winners of all may have been the teachers, newly enthusiastic about the possibilities in their profession. Teachers at PCHS were paid to work on curriculum and planning for Project 2000 during the summers and vacations. Teachers now have access to an electronic mailing system, record grades electronically, and have begun using technology platforms for classroom presentations. The platforms permit teachers to use any computer program and project what they are doing on 27-inch television screens for student viewing.
"We have been asking teachers to restructure schools while also expecting them to be effective full-time teachers. We have been asking them to do two things at the same time, and that does not work very well," says Higgins in his matter-of-fact way.
For additional information:
Piscataquis Community High School
P.O. Box 118 (Blane Avenue)
Guilford, ME 04443