PORTLAND, Maine — Public school districts in Portland and Sanford have been awarded a total of nearly $9 million in grant money to implement what educators are calling “student centered” educational approaches, state officials announced Tuesday.

According to a Maine Department of Education announcement, Nellie Mae Education Foundation has awarded the organization Jobs for Maine Graduates $5.1 million over three years in partnership with the Portland Public Schools. The Sanford School Department will receive $3.7 million over the same span. The city of Portland’s Refugee Services Program and the Safe and Healthy Sanford Coalition will also get $130,000 each to play supporting roles in implementing the “student centered learning” initiatives, which aim to shift the districts from standard “one-size-fits-all” classroom approaches to more individualized learning “pathways” for students.

Foundation President Nicholas Donohue said in a statement that Portland and Sanford were chosen for the cash infusions because the districts are already “most aligned with our theory of change.”

In Portland, the grant money is slated to help build what Superintendent James Morse called “personalized learning models,” creating a network of community organizations that can provide qualifying high school students with educational opportunities outside traditional classrooms and school schedules.

Morse said the effort “supports the district’s comprehensive plan and our mission to build relationships among families, educators, and the community to promote the healthy development and academic achievement of every learner.”

In Sanford, the district is expected to launch a “significant remodeling” of its education system to dovetail with Nellie Mae’s preferred approach, said Safe and Healthy Sanford Coalition Executive Director Rachel Phipps, with details of the local reform to come through an implementation process that “engage[s] the entire Sanford community.”

Bowen said as part of Tuesday’s announcement that the initiatives encouraged by the Nellie Mae grants align closely with his department’s recently announced strategic plan.

However, some parents are distrustful of the award, arguing the money coerces the districts into accepting policy changes without proper vetting, and that Portland and Sanford are being set up to help push Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen’s proposed reforms through the Legislature.

“There is completely a rush through this [in order to get the grant money],” Portland parent Anna Collins said Tuesday. “The public process has been a complete joke. They’re pushing through this agenda very, very quickly, with parents like myself having to catch up and left with no chance to weigh in on things.”

Collins, a Portland mother and attorney who reached out to members of the media as a representative of Maine Parents for Transparent Education Policy, said she feels they’re a little too closely aligned.

Collins said the Nellie Mae grants aim to coax influential school districts into the corner of LD 1422, a bill which earned the endorsement of the Legislature’s Education Committee last month and which carries many provisions tied to Bowen’s plan. Among the reforms included is the call for students to “demonstrate proficiency” in a range of subjects before being allowed to graduate from high school, instead of allowing graduation based on completion of a set number of classes.

That so-called standards-based educational approach can lead to the grouping and advancement of students based on how well they understand the subject matter, rather than by how old they are, an approach advocated for by both Bowen and Nellie Mae.

Collins counts herself as a skeptic of the standards-based approach, calling it “unproven,” and arguing that implementing the strategy in Maine is a risky move in which the state’s children become educational “guinea pigs.”

“They are essentially trying to push through LD 1422 [with the grant funding],” Collins, who has become a regular at Portland School Committee meetings in recent months, said Tuesday. “They can say, ‘We’ve got some of the biggest districts in the state on board, you have to pass this.’”

But in a memo to the school board, Morse characterized the Nellie Mae grant as supporting efforts the district has long had in the works, and wrote that the grant “involves no new budgetary obligations … and does not commit the district to a specific outcome” or use of standards-based grading. Morse noted that the district began implementing a style of student centered learning by establishing in 2005 Casco Bay High School, an expeditionary learning school located on the site of the Portland Arts and Technology High School.

“The grant provides critical resources and the community support structure to accelerate completion of the comprehensive plan at the high school level and help us move up implementation,” the superintendent wrote.

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.