Casco Bay High School: Learning as Exploration

MapThis post is part of the series Road Trip to Maine. This is the second of a four-part look at Casco Bay High School. Read Tips and Takeaways (Part 1), Learning as Exploration (Part 2), The What and HOW of Learning, and We Will Shape our School by our Learning (Part 4).


From start to finish of my day at Casco Bay High School, the overwhelming feeling was one of fun. Or perhaps it is really an all-out pervasive joy of learning. I saw it in the students gathering together in the Great Space before the start of the school day, the group conversations among students, the discussions with teachers, and the knock-me-over-I-was-laughing-so-hard game of Your Greatest Fan with the staff and visiting educators from Chicago at the end of the day. (You can get a taste of FUN at the video Movin’ On Up – the celebration when students get accepted to their first college.)

Before I dive into describing the proficiency-based system (remember Maine uses the term proficiency-based), it is important to understand the overarching design of Casco. It’s not easy, as Casco is what I described as an integrated model. The pieces all work together – take away one element and it will have direct implications on the rest of the model.

1. Size and Student Population
Sharing space with the Portland Arts and Technology High Schools, Casco serves, at its maximum capacity, 400 students with about 50 percent FRL. It is one of three public high schools in Portland and has a large number English Language Learners, many of whom are from the over ten African countries for which Portland serves as a refugee settlement city. With a waiting list, students are admitted to Casco based on a lottery weighted for Free and Reduced Lunch, special education, and ELL. Given that refugee families are in the midst of many changes as they create new lives, mobility is an issue. In addition, Casco accepts students in all grades throughout high school.

2. Expedition, Community, and Adolescent Development
Casco is an Expeditionary Learning school with an emphasis on achievement, character, and meaningful work. (If you haven’t visited it yet, check out the Illuminating Standards that has been developed by a partnership between Expeditionary Learning and Harvard Ed School.) Again, Casco is so integrated that any activity is designed to build on all three components.
Expedition: The concept of expeditions, or learning as an exploration, is constantly drawn upon throughout the school. Expeditions, all of which are interdisciplinary, can take place within the school, on Cow Island for outdoor learning, or in the community to look at topics such as sustainable foods. Each class has a major question guiding their year. This year, sophomores are exploring Africa Rising, juniors are looking at income equality, and seniors are learning about the Arab world with a final project of turning the school into a museum so others can learn as well. Freshmen and seniors have Quests, and the Junior Journey is a week of investigation, community service, oral histories, and video production on inequity in an American city such as New Orleans, NYC, or Biloxi. Here is a video about expeditions created by Edutopia in the Schools That Work series.

Another form for students to explore their passions, the world, and their own perspective on the world is through intensives. These week-long opportunities may include learning to swim, learning conflict resolutions skills, or embarking on career exploration.

Community: Community, community building, and citizenship is an equally dominant theme with intentional strategies and structures. Students are placed in Crews, which are designed to create a sense of family with one teacher for every fifteen or so students. The culture of Crew is that teachers and students do whatever it takes to support one other. When students graduate, they walk together to get their diplomas. Crews have intentional activities and curriculum that emphasize community, help students to build agency and the skills to navigate the world, and then, in senior year, serve to support them as they more independently navigate the world and into the college admissions maze. The day I visited, the Crews were building up norms for “courageous conversations” to tackle deeply personal issues such as micro-aggressions and substance use and abuse. But don’t be scared – they also make time for Friday Fun. The folks at Casco firmly believe that fun and silliness are part of community building. They’re one of the ways we can show our vulnerability and fallibility.

Students get an elective credit for their participation in Crew, with the focus on self-reflection, metacognition, development of character traits, and developing personal goals. However, they also play several key roles in which students are active participants in the operation of the school. When new transfer students enter, it is the Crew members who explain to them how the grading works, what HOW is, the norms of no harassing or bullying, and the importance of Crew. One teacher also described how it was the members of a Crew who helped one of her students who was deeply ambivalent about graduating complete his credits and participate in the graduation ceremonies. On the day of graduation, he was there as his Crew graduated together.

The second community is the grade-based cohort. Soon after school starts, ninth graders visit Cow Island for two days of outdoor leadership and team building as part of the Freshmen Quest. Two years later, they will participate in the Junior Journey to do community service – with visits to NYC, Biloxi, and Detroit in 2015. Finally, in the senior year, there is Senior Quest, again turning to outdoor leadership including kayaking and hiking. In the student panel, the freshmen and seniors just back from their Quests were absolutely glowing with love for their Crew and their class. Looking at me, one student said, “I’m not an outdoorsy person, but here I am wearing LL Bean boots.” (FYI – students also get PE credits for the quests.)

Adolescent Development: Casco is student-centered in that they have designed the school around adolescent development, including identity development, the importance of belonging, growing autonomy as young adults, making meaning, and building intrinsic motivation. One student commented, “I look forward to coming to school every day. I feel that I am embraced for whoever I am. I am allowed to be myself.” Another student emphasized, “Every teacher can answer the question, ‘Why are you teaching me this?’ The context is just as important as the content. So we learn about things that are connected to the real work. We learn about things from different perspective. We are engaged in thinking about the world.”

A staff person explained, “Crew is designed to help students take baby steps from early adolescent to young adulthood. In the early years, the focus is on creating a sense of community, but by senior year, students need to be ready to launch themselves. They need to be able to do things more independently. “

In addition to structuring a strong sense of community and a strong relational culture, Casco invests in creating opportunity after opportunity for students to find and develop passions and pushing out their horizons. They’ve added X-Block this year – once a week for thirty minutes, students can pick from up to twenty-five ideas including civil rights team, coding, and chess club.

A theme throughout all four years is exploring the question “Who am I?” One student explained her annoyance in being asked in the first week of school to answer a set of questions that included, “What is my name?” followed by “Who am I?” She had no idea how to answer the latter question. She explained that over the four years they are continually asked to explore the question. In the Freshmen Quest and the Freshmen Finale at the end of the year, it is a major point of discussion. In their sophomore year, they create a twenty-minute presentation on the topic of “Who am I and What am I Bringing to the Community?” In preparing for graduation, there is Final Word Week in which all seniors make a presentation summarizing their experience. In a sophomore poetry class, I saw this firsthand as they reviewed the structures of poetry (stanza, rhymes, and meter) and then began to brainstorm vivid ways to describe themselves, with the final learning target being to prepare poetry that describes who they are.

The day we visited, the topic in all the Crews was on how to have “courageous conversations.” A team of teachers and a student had created a draft of protocols that could be used by the Crews to guide them into conversations on topics that may be deeply personal or emotional, or to open up heated discussion.

3. Proficiency-Based Infrastructure
One student captured PBL in six words, “If you try, you will succeed.”

Student Agency and Habits of Work: As explained above, Casco is helping teenagers to become young adults through very intentional strategies based on what we know about adolescent development. They also design around the principle of active learning. One student explained, “I feel more like an adult. I have the freedom to be an active learner rather than to be told to sit your butt down and listen. I feel more prepared for college.”

However, I think a lot of their success is based on their intentionality about Habits of Work (HOW). Not only do they talk about Habits of Work a lot – with classrooms having a Habit of the Week on the wall – but they also use them in a way that links the behaviors to success. The strategy is that if students get a 3 out of a 1-4 scale on the Big 3 (deadlines, homework, and attendance), they can have more time for learning. If students don’t demonstrate they are putting in the effort, then they will get lower scores. The school doesn’t want anyone to fail who is trying hard, and they also want to make sure students understand the relationship between effort and learning. I’ll write more on this later as it is so important.

Learning Targets: At Casco, there are four types of learning targets, and they are used by teachers in ways that are meaningful, not in a bureaucratic fashion.

Please note: Learning targets are different than course standards. The long-term learning target frames the expedition or essential question. For example, learning targets for an interdisciplinary course might include: 1) I can define stream of consciousness and perspective and 2) I can explain how both these terms are used in literature. Then there are short-term and daily learning targets that clarify the learning activities for the unit or day. And in each classroom there will be one HOW learning target for students to focus upon.

The humanities teachers often work together to construct interdisciplinary expeditions. The social studies teacher explained that the long-term learning target in a sophomore interdisciplinary course on the theme Subject to Citizen is “I can tell the story of a people’s (attempted) transition from subject to citizen.” The short-term social studies learning targets they were working on that day included “I can depict in vivid text and image a key event in a people’s transition” and “I can interpret photographs.” The day we were visiting, students were walking around the room with a prompt as they looked at historical photographs from Egypt over the past 100 years, talking about what they noticed and how it could be interpreted. In their English class, students were reading Mahfouz’s The Thief and the Dogs as an anchor text. For the ELL students, there was scaffolding so they could participate in making meaning of the text. There is a constant focus, one might even say a motto, that “everyone can experience the expedition and everyone can participate.”

For every learning target, there are exemplars and rubrics. One of the most interesting conversations I had was about the practices that teachers at Casco are using to help students really own the targets and rubrics. Susan McCray, an English teacher, explained that by the time teachers are done creating learning targets and rubrics, designing assessments, and selecting exemplars, they really own them. The challenge is to get students to own them. McCray showed me how she has students use the rubrics to do peer reviews of their writing, becoming comfortable with it by giving feedback to another student and then in reviewing their own work.

Grading as a Tool for Learning: Casco has developed a strong standards-based grading system that: 1) ensures students get feedback on the way to proficiency, 2) builds upon HOWs as the path to success, and 3) allows for students to excel. Scoring is simple – approaches (2), meets (3), and exceeds (3.25-4) – and is used for academic progress and for HOW. As a teacher explained, “A 1 means you didn’t turn in, 2 means you need to revise, 3 is you’ve reached proficiency, and above that you are stretching yourself to excel.”

Here is a link to a video and their guide for families on their standards-based grading model.
Classes are arranged heterogeneously by skill level except for AP Math, with any student able to do honors level work in any class. There are multiple ways that support is provided and clear strategies for reinforcing the importance of HOW on success.

In the next week, I will write about the grading system and how Casco provides support so that all students are successful.

4. What Does PBL Mean for Teachers?
The first thing to know is that Casco supports their teachers by ensuring that they have daily planning time. This might be used for their own planning or grade level teams. Currently, humanities teachers meet every other day and science and math teachers can meet every other day.

The PLC was described as the “engine of change.” The PLCs have coaches to help them build their capacity and address issues, and meet once a month to talk about student work or the work of teachers. Another technique to support teachers learning from each other is “learning walks” using a rubric.

In the middle of summer (thereby providing enough time for teachers to prepare for the next year), Casco has a three-day institute. This is when they think of the expeditions for each grade level that will drive much of the inquiry in the school.

What do the teachers have to say about working in this environment? They love the collaboration but note that the collaborative nature can scare some people away. They work hard and they find it more fulfilling because they have deep relationships with their colleagues as well as with students.

5. A Few More Interesting Things

  • English Language Learners: The ELL team co-designs courses with teachers. They want to make sure there is scaffolding so that all students can participate in making meaning. (Remember: making sure that all students can participate and be active learners is a driving design principle.) They also emphasize reading, with expectations that students will read in the summer. They also have book groups for students to pick and choose from – all are high interest with varying levels of complexity of the text.
  • Discipline as Learning: Similar to many other proficiency-based schools, behavioral issues become opportunities for learning and developing greater maturity. As a staff member explained, “First and foremost, we are relational. The first thing we ask is, ‘Why did you do it?’” The team at Casco has been influenced by Ross Green’s work. As much as possible, they draw on restorative justice practice in which students make amends, find ways to make things right, write letters of apology, or do community service.
  • Education Technology: At this point, Casco is approaching technology as a tool that students use for research and to develop evidence of learning rather than a blended learning model that provides greater flexibility for students. They have 1:1 iPads, and MacBook Pros are available for making videos. They use some adaptive software, primarily in math, to help students strengthen and practice skills.
  • Tracking Student Progress: Casco is using Infinite Campus to manage grading and track student progress on standards within a course-based structure (i.e., like most products out there, it’s still difficult to get student-centered reports that show progress across disciplines and over time).

Stay tuned for additional posts on grading and support at Casco Bay High School.

This is based on a site visit from 2015 and originally published at CompetencyWorks.

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