2016-09-01 / News

STEM Academy new in Biddeford this year

By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – With the school year about to start, Superintendent Jeremy Ray said Biddeford is leading the way on a number of initiatives. As the first school district in Maine to establish a standalone middle grade level STEM Academy, Ray said Biddeford Schools are working to better prepare its students for the best career opportunities.

The academy, which will begin its first year this year, received more than 100 applications for 60 student openings.

Ray said the students who were accepted have already begun working on projects in anticipation of the school year.

“Students were at work right upon acceptance. They’re pretty excited,” he said.

In addition, Ray said the district is increasing STEM learning activities at the primary and intermediate schools.

“We’re making concerted efforts to make sure kids will have hands-on experience weekly at the primary school and every day at the intermediate school,” he said. “Typically across the nation, kids around middle school ages start to make decisions about where they’re going to go and around middle school, (interest in science) starts to fall away … This is an opportunity here. We know what a lot of our job demand is for kids when they graduate high school.”

“There will be extra training (for teachers), but just a real commitment and focus to make sure that our kids don’t have science move off to the wayside. We feel passionate that having kids involved with hands-on science will foster a love for it.”

Ray said the district will develop three pathways for its students to pursue. STEM is one of the three pathways, and the other two will be determined by the community through strategic planning.

“There’s a big call for creating kids who are college and career ready and we need to look at pathways and approaches that make them successful no matter what pathway they take,” he added.

The Biddeford Regional Center of Technology will implement a new plumbing program this year, with help from a grant from the Maine Attorney General’s Office.

“If you look at all of the trades, anybody doing construction, we know there’s always a demand,” Ray said.

Another first that Biddeford is leading the way in, Ray said, is the move to later start times for high schools and middle schools. After a lengthy community process held last year, Biddeford High School, Thornton Academy and Old Orchard Beach High School all chose to move their school start times to a later time to accommodate research that shows that adolescents need more sleep and learn better later in the day.

“We’re the only three high schools (in Maine) that meet the recommendations for the (Center for Disease Control),” he said

In terms of facilities and grade organization, Ray said the district will continue this year with the “status quo,” but community conversations will need to be held to review the future for John F. Kennedy Memorial School.

“We got to continue to look at the structure of JFK and figure out what we’re going to do with this as a school and as a facility,” he said. “The school committee is looking at this through its strategic planning process.”

Other facilities that will need to be reviewed are Waterhouse Field and the Center of Technology, he added, both of which will also be reviewed in the coming year. A hosting meeting will be held on Waterhouse Field on Sept. 8 to look at possible future uses of the field.

“We need to make some needed repairs,” Ray said. “We’re at a point in time when certainly there’s been a lot of years when there hasn’t been any maintenance. The community will get an opportunity to make some decisions on how to proceed. It will take some time. Nothing will change, there will be no changes with facilities (without community discussion).”

Even though the Center of Technology is undergoing renovations that will be complete in September, Ray said the building, which was built in the 1960’s, needs more improvement and renovations. Among the improvements being made on the first floor this year, Ray said the hallways have been redone, LED lighting added, classrooms refinished, new ceilings and floor tiles installed, office space created and upgrades made for handicap accessibility.

Even still, Ray said the improvements “are not even touching what it really needs.” In the past two budget cycles, the city council has added more than $100,000 into the school budget to make nominal improvements to the center each year. Ray said the money the city spends on renovating the building is eventually reimbursed by the Maine Department of Education at a rate of 110 percent.

“We know that (the money spent) will come back to us,” he said.

City Manager James Bennett said even though the city council can only approve the bottom line of the school budget and can’t allocated money towards certain line items, the improvements to the Center of Technology came up in budget discussions last year because the school had submitted a school budget that asked for approximately $100,000 less to be generated from local property taxes than in the previous year.

“What the council did during the budget process, is they brought it up to what was the amount of money raised from the local property tax base the year before,” Bennett said. “There was a need there that the school department had identified and there was a need to invest in the center. The council decided it was a good time to make that investment.”

The council subsequently increased the school budget to receive the equivalent amount from property taxes as the year before, which the school committee then allocated to go toward the center.

As far as teaching methods go, Ray said the district is focusing on being “studentcentered driven and proficiency based.”

“We look at peer-to-peer coaching and how teachers can be solid peer teachers and coaches for others in the building,” he said. “How can people watch somebody who’s delivering a lesson and does an outstanding job and take something away? Teachers are natural teachers who are students.”

Ray said the district is projecting an increase in English language learners, but couldn’t provide the exact numbers until registration was complete at the start of the year. Ray said he saw a similar increase in that population when he was a principal in Westbrook.

“I think it might be due to housing shortages in Portland,” he said. “I think the housing market here is cheaper than apartments in Portland.”

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