Thursday, March 21, 2013

REAL School Principal Receives Top Honor by Elizabeth Richards

Pender Makin began her career in alternative education by default, unable to find a job teaching English.  ”About three quarters of the way through that first year it occurred to me that I could do no other kind of education,” she said.  “I fell into it by chance, and by default, and I stuck with it because of absolute passion and love for working with these kids.”  After seven years at a program in Westbrook, she came to RSU 14’s REAL school as principal in 2003.  In 2013, she has been named the Maine Secondary Principal of the year by the Maine Principals’ Association. 

“It’s a really big honor,” Makin said, adding that she’s also humbled by the experience.  “I can’t emphasize strongly enough all of the credit goes to our students and staff.  They make me look great and now I’m just riding their coattails and collecting accolades for what’s really done by these amazing people.”  She added that she’s pleased to see the MPA recognizing an alternative program for the prestigious honor.  

The REAL School, an alternative public school program of the Windham/Raymond School Department serving students from seventh to 12th grades, is close to 30 years old.  The school has tuition students from all over Southern Maine, who are referred by their school systems.  “Many of our kids are gifted and talented, and are just disaffected, or haven’t been effectively reached by other traditional educational programs,” Makin said.  “All of them are gifted in some important way.”

Some goals of the school are similar to that of any high school, such as students achieving the common core learning standards, earning diplomas, and moving on to college or other post-secondary educational options.  At the same time, there are some key differences in the goals and mission of the REAL School.  “The one thing (the students) do have in common, as different as they are, is that they have had long histories of failure to thrive in a traditional setting,” Makin said.  “Our number one goal is to break that negative cycle and to help them reinvest in themselves as humans, and as learners, and as individuals who are infinitely capable of great things.”  

 On a Friday afternoon, the school was buzzing with activity.  Makin explained that it was the culmination of a service learning project that students had done in conjunction with Maine College of Art (MECA) students and their instructors.  They created a school improvement plan, including a new outdoor sign, painting inside, and display boards for student work.  Students were involved in all aspects of the project, from planning to color palette design to prepping, priming and painting. 

Other students that afternoon were across the state on hikes, stocking shelves at the Preble Street Resource Center and helping the Portland Water District with a project to raise a submerged hiking trail back up for use as an educational center.  While this isn’t the scenario every day, the REAL school is founded on project-based, service learning educational practices, Makin said, and every day students work on planning these projects.  

“We try to take whatever (students) would be doing in the classroom and find a way to make it useful and real, and as student directed as possible,” Makin said.  This includes programs like their farm to table school lunch program, in which students grow and harvest local ingredients to include in their meals, then plan, prepare and serve all the meals.  Other projects have included taking students to Florida to save sea turtles or to Washington D.C. to deliver a story students had recorded and edited about a veteran to the Library of Congress.  “Our students are creating things that go out and have a greater impact in the world, which for them is important,” Makin said.

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