George Lucas Educational Foundation

Principal Derek Pierce on Building Relationships Between Students and Teachers

How a Portland, Maine high school made human relationships the building blocks of high student achievement.
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Derek Pierce: In our first year, we were often perceived as all over the place. We were perceived as we must be an elite private school only for gifted kids to we are a school for all special-ed kids to we are a school that was a money siphon, a literal vacuum sucking precious resources from the rest of the city, and so it's taken time for people to understand that we're more than a sound bite, and it's complicated to explain what we do, but we are for all kids, the same per pupil as other high schools in the district, and everybody would complain about what that is, but we also had to start with no inventory. So, we had to with the same amount of money create new curriculum and create new possibilities. We do not have a very textbook-driven curriculum. We have some as resources, but we use primarily laptops for our -- in the role of textbooks in some senses, and we use the field. We use the city around us as a textbook, and we get our kids out in the field a couple times a month working with experts that may range from local businessmen to, you know, fishermen and scientists and university professors and whoever may be relevant to the work our kids are doing.

We know that what matters to parents in the broader community is outcomes, and so on the two most important outcomes we've done pretty well. A hundred percent of our first graduating class were accepted into college, seventy-five percent to four-year schools. On the state test, which includes the SATs in the state of Maine, we've exceeded state and city average on every single test: reading, science, math. That said, we're the last place to be accused of teaching to the test. Our curriculum is driven by learning expeditions, as they are at King. We do two expeditions each year, one that's math-science-driven, one that's humanities-driven. Those expeditions usually involve multiple classes. They may range in length from two or three weeks to six or seven months, and they involve kids in doing what we call real work for a real audience, work that they -- work that kids are clear that they're going to change the world potentially through what they're doing, one project at a time.

Expedentiary learning allows you to do kind of in-depth case studies that have a broader relevance, the idea that if you look really tightly at the particular in a very compelling case study that you can get the broader lessons that you can apply all over the place, so it's very much a depth-over-breadth approach. And we pick case studied that we know will be meaningful to our kids, from Portland's working waterfront to a Rwandan genocide, because we know we have kids who're going to directly connect to that.

By year's end, every single kid is up in front of the school for some reason. Say it's reading something they've written, performing something, paying tribute to another kid. We have conferences a couple times a year. We have a final word, where every single senior has to give a speech to the entire senior class about who they are and where they're going. We do something similar at the end of sophomore year, where they have to present their work to their peers and parents and outside folks, so kids have to kind of stand up and say, "Here's who I am". So, we really emphasize that piece, because we think that's a skill that's very undervalued in schools and highly transferrable and helps establish who a kid is and gives them a confidence that they can carry on.

It starts with fantastic teachers, and to me that's potentially the scarcest commodity but the commodity that's most essential to make a great school. And you have to find people who are -- it's missionary work doing this kind of work. It's extremely hard, I think. Our teachers recognize that collaborative work leads to better results, leads to more fulfilling work for the -- it makes educational work more sustainable for them, makes it more rewarding; however, it's harder. It takes more time, and if you're trying to not only create great curriculum in your own classroom but have it sync with other people's curriculum and have it all culminate meaningfully and meet core state learning standards at the same, that's an incredible challenge like making a great meal. You got to have the turkey and the mashed potatoes, and all that's got to come -- be ready all at once and all taste good and go well together. And that's a lot harder than just making the stuffing, but it's richer, and so I think our faculty, they don't want to go anywhere else. We've been very successful in terms of turnover. We have very little turnover, because people are really thrilled to be where they are, even though the work is unbelievably hard.

Our teachers are together for a week in the summer, and it's essential to planning the long-term expeditions. It's during that week when they're in their teacher teams, grade-level teams for a couple -- just a couple days. It doesn't take more than that to get a vision for the year, and then that vision for the year is going to change, of course. It's going to morph, but it really helps to kind of anchor the whole year's work. Without that week, I don't think we could do what we do, but it's only a week and it's crazy that schools don't have 15 days of staff development, because that to me is the biggest lever of change is giving teachers time to talk to one another about curriculum and then during the year to talk regularly about curriculum and kids.

There have to be knowable communities of leaders and teachers that work together and stay together for a couple years, and that can happen through looping, teaming, advisory practices and typically all at once. I mean, to me there is no one structure that fits everything, and I think sometimes schools try to change too incrementally to make substantive difference, and you need to have -- if you're driven by a value like relationships and you form the structures of your schools around that kind of value, then all sorts of structures are going to change. And it's the system of those structures about personalization and relationships that really have the impact. The impacts tends to kind of grow exponentially if those structures are consistent and build on one another.

Too many schools say, "We can't do the field work. We can't get the kids out, because then I'll tick off that teacher down the hall because I'm pulling my kids out of their class". But if you have this team approach and there's a recognition: "You know what? I'm going to do humanities-based field work, because we all need to work together towards that end, but the math-science field work, that's going to happen this spring. You'll get more time," and that kind of negotiation can happen if you're sharing kids and sharing purposes. So, I think given autonomy to teachers even in a big school can help not make the schedule the dictator of learning, because if it is, you're just really limiting yourself.

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

Dr. Sam W. Bloom's picture

Not only does it take great teachers to work collaboratively, but it also takes a great leader to make it happen!

Peter Harrington's picture

Comparing teaching and education to meal preparation is genius. It makes perfect sense and is so easy to understand how a strategic vision has been developed, communicated and bought into. Must blog about this film.

Mary Ann Rosser's picture

Thank you for demonstrating what the learning process looks like in action. To witness the learning, and to hear the achievement successes of your school should be shared nationwide. And hopefully others will change their perceptions of the role of school leadership.

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