George Lucas Educational Foundation

Principal Mike McCarthy Sustains a Culture of Collaboration

At King Middle School in Portland, Maine, McCarthy transformed a culture of divisiveness and violence by committing to cooperation and innovation. More to this story.
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Principal Mike McCarthy Sustains a Culture of Collaboration (Transcript)

When I came here, the school was -- had a very discouraged faculty. There was a lot of student-to-student violence. It was highly tracked, we had seven different tracks, so that's seven different segregated groups that moved throughout the day. So that caused a lot of the animosity between student groups, because some groups were frankly treated a lot better than other groups. And the groups were right along socioeconomic lines, and racial lines. So when I first took over here, I knew that something had to change.

The work with the staff begin with an investigation of the idea of Outward Bound, and could you upset the ruts of, you know, traditional thinking by getting people out of the building and on an Outward Bound course, and so that's where I started, and I got... The first time we had just five people, and myself, six of us, went on an outward bound course, and we began realizing that somehow we had to bring this back to school, somehow the teamwork really worked in the wilderness, could it work in the school? We really learned well when we were up there. Could you take that learning and bring it inside the school building? The idea of Outward Bound is not to get yourself to the top of the mountain, but to get everyone to the top of the mountain, and that really has been the philosophy of this school. We have a lot of needy kids. How do you -- how do you create school experiences that work for all kids? How do you create a culture of school, where every kid matters, and those are the values that we, sort of, planned the school on. So if you have those values, how do you operationalize them, and if you stack -- so we started looking at, who is learning here, and we found that we were running two schools, one for the haves, and one for the have nots. So the change we made there is, we eliminated tracking. And when you eliminate tracking and, you know, people -- teachers are used to teaching a certain way, you also had to change the way learning was delivered. So all of the research we found was that kids working in teams, kids working on project based learning, really worked.

I decided to create a leadership team, which was representative of teachers from all over the school. Some who were in agreement with what we were doing, and some not. And I presented these ideas about changing the schedule and eliminating tracking, and could we be about a school that... Could we be... Run a school that valued all kids, and try to create some teacher time to work together, so more of a collaborative culture. And the leadership team, we sort of worked together, and we -- and we came to agreement on that vision. And then we brought it to the rest of the staff, and we've moved on from there. We created teams of teachers to work on, what does a schedule looks like, where teachers own time, and that was one of the first steps. And how do you teach to a variance in classrooms, and that became when we -- that's how we investigated expeditionary learning.

The staff has a lot of autonomy here. They have control of time, they make their own schedules, they make their own decisions about what expeditions they're going to do. We -- my job is to support them in any way they can, and to protect them and to make sure that they have the resources. The protection part is, you know, sometimes we're out on a limb, and we're doing some things that are maybe riskier than normal school, and we all know that the only way you learn is through taking some risks.

The major part of our assessment here is the quality of student work. Every -- every expedition kid produces several items, but there's usually a final product that I would match that quality of work up with any school in the country. So you have that. The students also maintain a portfolio of their work, which they present to their parents two times a year, and so that they know that their work has to be of high quality, because they're presenting it. It's not about the parent coming in asking the teacher how they're doing, the student has to present their work. So that's, I think, the most important thing, but we also have state standardized tests at King, just like everybody else does in the country. And the -- and for our kids at King, even though 56 percent of them are on free lunch, and 33 percent of them are second language learners, and we speak 31 different languages, we score above the state average in every curriculum area, at every grade level.

We have people who have come from, I think there's 16 foreign countries to come and see how we use laptops, and then, when they come here, they see the laptops, they say, "Well you also have this thing called expeditionary learning, and project based learning. If we just had that, and laptops, we could do this, but we don't have expeditionary learning, we're just going to buy laptops," and then we have people from expeditionary learning come, who are investigating whether they want to do it, and they look at expeditionary learning, and they said, "Well we can't possibly do that, because we don't have the laptops."

But what we say, it's all about engagement of kids, whether you have the laptops, or whether you have... The design of the school is, we get kids excited about learning, and we let them go, and they -- and the, you know, the -- really the genius of this school is not in a program, it's not in the laptops, it's in the learning, it's in teachers designing learning that they know will work for kids. And it's not a program, it's not a laptop, it's the whole thing, it's about, they value kids, they know how to engage them, and they have the space and the time and the autonomy to do it.

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Video Credits

Produced and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis


  • Karen Sutherland

Coordinating Producer

  • Amy Erin Borovoy

Camera Crew

  • Gilberto Nobrega
  • Kevin Kalunian

Production Assistant

  • Doug Keely

Support for Edutopia's Schools That Work series is provided, in part, by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

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Comments (4) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Juan COUPEAU's picture

How to become a leader in an Educational Organization when the staff is not united?
What am I doing for dealing with people that have lose his interior youth even his cheerfulness???
Thanks in advance
Juan Coupeau

Petra Kintzinger's picture

Start small, Juan. Your question seems like you're a principal but your profile says teacher. Either way, get to know people - build relationships. Find positive things to talk about. Whenever possible, have conversations with individual staff members about education - let your vision for learning shine through (hopefully that is natural for you), and be there. Take risks yourself, share what you're doing in the classroom that's engaging for kids (or, what you did if you've recently become a principal). Recommend books, email inspirational video clips and articles to staff, then be ready if someone wants to talk about them. So simple, what Mike did - he invited all 70 to Outward Bound, and the first time, only 5 came .... that's how it all begins. Petra Kintzinger

shamila syed's picture

I listened to the talk and felt inspired. I am an English language teacher ,wanting to be a principal, because i feel working in that capacity you have the authority and resources to bring about change that effects many.At the same time, I feel I don't have the required qualification,I have a Master's degree in English and have done a diploma in ELT,other than that I've experience of watching various principals at work.Is that enough? Would a principal hold it against me if I requested to be given an administrative responsibility, what if i fail to deliver?

Shauna Farrell's picture

"The genius of this school is not in a program, it's not in the laptops, it's in the learning. It's in teachers designing learning that they know will work for kids...and they have the space and the time and the autonomy to do it." That's the key. He has hired teachers that share his vision and he lets them do what they do best. A tool (laptop, ipad, etc.) is only useful in the hands of someone who knows what to do with it. It will never be a solution on its own.

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