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BRYANT POND, Maine — EB Hoff, 14, was running for class treasurer of the Class of 2022.
She announced her candidacy at her school’s wooden lectern, decorated with a drawing of a howling wolf. It was early June, and EB’s no-nonsense attire — a pale yellow sweater and black, ironed shorts — made her stand out from the slouching, jean-clad candidates lined up beside her.
She read confidently from her prepared statement. “Every fundraiser we did this year, every school event, every time one of my commitments needed something, I was there.”
Speaking at length of her vision and qualifications — at one point she reminded her 47 classmates that she had faithfully executed officer duties “since I was elected in fourth grade” — EB looked up every so often at her peers, sprawled on the grass in front of her. A few boys were laughing and poking each other with sticks, but most of the students seemed to listen with genuine interest. All clapped respectfully when she finished.
The kind of leadership and responsibility that shone through EB’s speech is actively encouraged at this unusual program in rural Maine. Called the Telstar Freshman Academy, or TFA, it involves all its district’s ninth graders in a hands-on learning method that uses outdoor-based projects and community-building activities as ways to teach across several disciplines.
The program is aimed at helping students feel connected to each other and their community in a place where — as in so many rural areas hit hard by the opioid epidemic and the 2008 recession — connectedness and a shared sense of purpose have been in short supply.
Kelly Dole, the school’s science teacher, says that when she first started teaching at Telstar High School, in 1998, students were often unprepared for life after high school. Coming from rural townships in western Maine, half of them qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, and many were part of families experiencing unemployment, domestic violence or substance abuse. In her decades at the traditional high school, she saw her students becoming increasingly aimless and disengaged.
But since 2014, she says, when the district introduced this new outdoor project-based approach, students’ ambition and sense of identity have dramatically improved. Instead of going to a traditional high school, all freshmen in MSAD 44 — a western Maine district including the rural towns of Bethel, Newry, Woodstock and Greenwood — spend every morning at the Bryant Pond 4-H center (which also serves as a summer camp), and return to the main high school to have lunch and take math and elective classes. As part of the program, the freshmen engage in intensive community-building exercises, including tending to animals, learning to rock climb, running a restaurant — and coaching each other as they run for student government.
“This style of learning, this family atmosphere that we have here, it’s a real positive in kids’ lives,” Dole said. “The kids just have opportunities through this program that are really quite astonishing.”
David Murphy, who has served as the district’s superintendent since 2002 (and has worked in the district since 1984), explained that the approach was born of necessity. “High school is not really working for most kids,” he said. “And it’s certainly not working for small schools with rural kids.”
Prior to 2014, students were distracted and disengaged, often doing the bare minimum to graduate from high school (if they did at all). To change these attitudes toward school, Murphy reasoned that the district needed to reimagine students’ first, pivotal year in high school, after they move from eighth to ninth grade. “If that transition feels scary or intimidating for kids, or if they don’t feel supported, or if they just feel overwhelmed, it’s hard to get that time back,” he said.
Working with Ryder Scott, the statewide director of the University of Maine 4-H Camp and Learning Center, Murphy created a program that merged outdoor and farm-based education with academic instruction, ultimately creating a faculty of five: a humanities teacher, a science teacher, an outdoor education teacher and two 4-H professionals. Together, they created a curriculum that incorporates state academic standards into personalized learning projects that reflect students’ particular needs and interests, such as caring for the campus goats and planting a self-sustaining classroom garden.
Additionally, they take advantage of private grants to support, among other experiences, a class trip to Washington, D.C. — which is particularly meaningful for the many students who have never traveled outside western Maine — and a mentorship program for students who have experienced trauma.
Dole said that this holistic, student-centered paradigm has changed her approach to teaching — for the better. Now, she said, as she approaches her lesson planning and her teaching, she asks herself questions she never asked before: “Do I need every kid to really deeply understand plate tectonics? versus, as a 14-year-old, What does it mean to be a student? What does it mean to work in a group or get along with others? Or to communicate in an effective manner? Or to be a positive force in your community?”
Though the program is still relatively new, schools leaders say students’ academic growth (as measured by standardized tests) has improved, and an external report by the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance found that students themselves reported an increase in their sense that they can make a difference in their communities and that they are learning skills that will help them in the future. However, according to faculty and students alike, the benefits of TFA’s approach are difficult to quantify.
EB Hoff, the candidate for treasurer, put it succinctly. At the end of her speech, she smiled at her classmates and spoke of their next chapter, 10th grade: “I can’t wait to start making a difference.”
This story about outdoor project-based learning for ninth-graders was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.