A positive vision for education

By Bonnie Tai

As we look toward a shared vision for our school district on Mount Desert Island (MDIRSS), our greatest challenge will be to let go of whatever images we have of what school looked like when we attended. If we can experience what schools feel like today and imagine together how they might serve future generations, working with any contradictions between our individual visions may be easier than we anticipate.

As a parent and teacher of education, I offer some thoughts on long-range planning for our schools.

MDIRSS students and their educators benefit from several kinds of wealth. First, our communities support our schools through annual approval of budgets to reflect the value we place on the importance of education. Our natural and community resources – such as the many people and organizations who reach out and partner with our schools – provide unique and diverse means to engage, challenge and support all students to their fullest potential.

Our educators recognize that some of our students require individual support for unique needs and deserve to have these needs met to the greatest extent possible, accepting the costs – material and human. Finally, we offer a wealth of opportunities for students to participate in athletics and the arts, particularly in high school, and the facilities necessary to connect with the whole student and not only what occurs above their necks.

As with any school district, our challenge is to continue to acknowledge and adapt to the individual needs within our communities while maintaining clear focus on our shared goals without predetermining the process. For example, our system website’s information “About Our School District” states that “the larger schools have more programming and supports, and have better test scores despite higher student to teacher ratios.” That implies that the size of the school allows for more programming and support and that more students, programming and support are the cause of higher test scores.

This implication ignores the many other possible root causes of student achievement that may be correlated with but not the cause of higher test scores.

The question should not be whether we should increase school or class sizes through consolidation, but how we can provide memorable and transformative experiences for the many students who still struggle to meet state expectations in english language arts and mathematics as measured by standardized tests. Students navigate the shoals of family tensions, peer influences, school experiences and commercial interests that too often undermine their capacity to contribute meaningfully and constructively to their developing identities and competencies. As one of my friends asks, “What could our schools and classrooms look like (literally) if the focus was not so decidedly on test scores?”

A shared goal might be to improve the quality of students’ experiences in order that they maintain their curiosity to learn and strengthen the skills that will help them to act freely and constructively. If so, the next step is to identify and agree on a logical and feasible process to reach that goal.

For over a century, schools have focused on literacy – reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. The 3 Rs are still the mainstay of what kids learn in school, although many if not most of us would agree that these are not enough to support a life of liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

I envision a school district that supports students’ development of the following ABCs: autonomy, belonging and compassion. These ABCs refocus educational priorities in light of diverse family structures, heightened apprehension for what the future holds and increasingly common and infinitely dissimilar types of work facilitated by information and communication technologies.

It draws from recent insights into the nature of learning and the origins of understanding from educational, psychology and neuroscience research. The quality of individual student experiences for the public good should be the standard by which to judge any decisions about resource-sharing or other forms of consolidation for the sake of financial or administrative efficiency.

The MDIRSS long-range planning document suggests that two schools might consolidate to better meet the needs of middle schoolers who find themselves in a class of eight girls and one boy. Implied is that a larger middle school with sixth to eighth graders might alleviate some “social and educational factors” for this age-group. Rather than social engineering our schools so that there are equal numbers of girls and boys in a class, why not work to create learning spaces where the sex and gender of our students are less relevant to their educational experiences?

Many parents on MDI can attest to the benefits of their children learning in a small K-8 school in which the pre-teens learn to be responsible role models to their younger peers, who accept the normalcy of children who choose to define and express their gender identity without conforming to rigid roles and rules. Undue emphasis on girl-boy ratios limits individual freedom of expression and signals to nonconforming students that they do not belong, are less valued by their community and do not have a right to define their own identity. Middle school students, given opportunities to act autonomously in defining who they are, can create a sense of belonging among their classmates. Given the opportunity, they can practice acting with compassion toward themselves and others targeted for asserting their independence from others’ attempts to limit their basic human rights.

Nurturing young people’s capacity to act autonomously, experience of belonging and compassionate attitude toward all life is also a way to work toward greater efficiency. Efficiencies should focus on our shared district infrastructural needs: transportation, buildings (utilities, waste management), and supplies (e.g., food, teaching materials).

As the third largest employer on the island, MDIRSS has the opportunity to lead our community in co-creating a peaceful, democratic, economically creative and environmentally responsible citizenry. By building on our generous varieties of wealth and working on longstanding and perennial challenges, we can practice letting go of any nostalgic memories of our own beloved school traditions to envision how they may and may not serve current students and our future shared visions of a thriving, year-round family of island communities.

Bar Harbor resident Bonnie Tai is a faculty member in educational and human studies at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor.

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