The St. George Municipal School Unit (MSU) has found creative ways to support teachers’ innovative ideas, meet the needs of all students, and connect the community to their school. How are they doing it? By prioritizing relationships, staff and student wellbeing, and joy in learning.
Keys to Success
- Building relationships with students and listening to what they want and need
- Being open to teachers’ innovative ideas for meeting students’ needs
- Reaching out to community contacts for support in implementing new ideas—and continuing to reach out until the right connection is made
- Giving back to the community in meaningful ways
“We are a community school, and the heart and strength of our school is the community of St. George,” says Mike Felton, superintendent of St. George MSU, which includes the PK-8 St. George School. “Our mission is pretty simple. It’s to do whatever it takes to make sure that every single student thrives and to contribute to the resiliency of our town. Because of necessity and opportunity, we think outside the box a lot. It’s a lot of work but also where a lot of our best and most innovative ideas come from.”
When Dr. Jessica Berry, assistant superintendent and special education director, started working in the district several years ago, she realized there were a number of students who would benefit from hands-on learning. To that end, she researched community opportunities and reached out to the Apprenticeshop in nearby Rockland. Now the district sends approximately 10 students each year to learn the history of boat building and to work on building boats.
“We’ve seen improved attendance,” Berry says. “Their assessment scores have grown tremendously. Knowing that I’m allowed to have the mindset of innovation and dreaming big allows us to provide so much more for the students. It started with looking at student needs and then saying we need to build relationships with all of them. That’s the foundation of this school.”
Fourth-grade teacher Jaime MacCaffray added, “Everyone is there to support each other. In every classroom we do what’s best for students. We use our community as much as possible.” She noted that Herring Gut Learning Center staff visit the school weekly and that many other local businesses, organizations, and community members support the school, whether by providing supplies, offering opportunities for learning, or serving as volunteers.
“We have really deep roots in our community and in our past,” Felton said. “Our future is rooted in our past.” He noted that when staff want to implement a new idea, he may not have an answer on how to make it happen right away, but community connections are key to finding a solution. “It may take two, three, four conversations,” he said, “but we keep going until we make the right connection with the right person or group.”
In turn, the school district gives back to the community in many ways, including local research, fundraising, and student art displays.
“In second grade they create bird boxes that go out onto the nature trail,” MacCaffray noted. “Our third graders have done fundraisers for our fire department, which is right across the street. Our middle schoolers have been working on the alewife project,” studying why the alewives haven’t come back. “We are throughout our community. They’re giving to us, and we’re giving back to them as much as possible.”
The district’s newest and most ambitious project, in partnership with MidCoast School of Technology, is building a PK-8 Career and Technical Education (CTE) Makerspace Building behind St. George School.
The building—which will be available to every student in the school and to community members as well—will include shop space for woodworking, boat building, metalwork, and other traditional trades; a makerspace with 3D printers, sewing machines, robotics, laser cutters, and CNC routers; a gallery area for students to work and to display their work; and a community space for adult ed and workforce training.
The makerspace building will give students “skills to meet current labor needs and create businesses and industries of the future,” Felton said. “We see this as the future of public education.”
He added that this endeavor is “something the community wants. They want these [trades] programs back.”
Not only will the makerspace re-engage students through hands-on projects, according to Felton and his colleagues, but local businesses will also have access to some of the technology and training. There will be opportunities for community members and students to work and learn together.
With $1.5 million+ raised from grants, donations, and business sponsors, the project is slated to begin construction this fall with the plan of opening in the fall of 2023.
The makerspace project is one of the many ways the St. George MSU works outside the box to meet the needs of both its students and its community. Another, less visible but equally impressive, way is the umbrella program the district has created to serve special education students, placing kids in different groups according to their needs.
Berry discussed the important connections between special education programs and the synergy resulting from these connection, noting, “A student who might have profound autism might spend time in another special ed program with their peers because it will benefit them in some way.” She said that because of the special education programs that have been developed at St. George School over the past several years there are no PK-8 students in out-of-district placements—meaning all St. George students can attend their community school.
“When we surveyed students in special ed, they all said they feel like they belong,” said Berry.
Watch the video below to learn more about what’s happening in St. George.