• Jordan D. Smith

PACE: Portland’s 3rd High School


Our community actually has three high schools. When most people think of the high school they automatically think of Portland High. Some may think of St. Patrick Catholic High School. Few though think of Portland’s PACE, which is an autonomous high school program of Portland Public Schools complete with its own building, administration, and staff.

PACE is an acronym for Portland Alternative and Community Education. While many people may think that name is synonymous with Adult-Ed, social studies teacher Brianne Sandborn is quick to point out that PACE is primarily, and more accurately Portland’s alternative high school, which also happens to offer adult ed night classes.


Classes at PACE are usually 8-15 students compared to 25-30 at PHS. This is one difference Sandborn says she especially loves about her job. “I am able to form relationships with my students much easier,” she says, “I am able to not only guide them academically but can mentor them through their high school career and beyond. Forming a bond with your students is one of the most rewarding aspects of being a teacher.” Those relationships pay dividends not only in student academic success but also in seeing students work through adversity as they grow and mature, according to Sandborn. “These relationships are the basis of our ability to get students who have often not been successful at the high school or in other schools to come to school, pass classes, graduate, and move on to be successful in our community and in society,” agrees PACE program principal Anthony Deardorff.


That small class size affects more than simply the number of students in a classroom as it directly affects the format of the class. Much of the coursework at PACE is self-paced (thus the apt acronym). For instance Sandborn says that one hour she may be teaching world history, government, and economics simultaneously to students in the same classroom who are all working on independent, self-paced coursework. “I am working with a student one on one to make sure they understand the assignment and then move on to the next student. Some students require more help and assistance and others are very capable to do it on their own and require very little help,” says Sandborn. “I could never fully pay attention sitting at the high school,” one PACE student said, “but coming here and getting individual help from the teachers saved me from sitting at the high school and failing over and over.”


Contrary to popular belief, students who have had serious discipline problems and transfer to PACE are the exception rather than the rule. “There are numerous reasons that students come to PACE,” says principal Deardorff, “they don’t fit in at the high school, they need more flexibility in their schedule, they are off track for graduation and want to get caught up, they need smaller class sizes with additional one-on-one teacher support, and many other reasons.” Sandborn echoes that sentiment saying that misconception is one that she and her colleagues are eager to correct. “We do not get the bad kids,” she insists, “or the ones that got kicked out, or the ones that are never going to go to college. Our students come to us for many different reasons and are just as successful as other high school students after graduation.”


Succeeding in school for many students begins with a change in mindset. One student said that “PACE has taught me that I am smarter than I think with just a little motivation, it’s taught me that there is nothing wrong with needing some help and time management.”


That success after graduation starts with earning a diploma. While some people may associate alternative or adult education with earning a GED or general educational development certificate, the coursework at PACE culminates in a high school diploma the same as those awarded at Portland High School. “The only difference is that it has my signature rather than the high school principal signature,” jokes principal Deardorff. Students at PACE learn the same curriculum and take the same courses (including electives) as their peers at other local high schools. One difference though is that PACE requires two fewer elective credits to graduate but has a seven-class schedule rather than a six-class schedule as at PHS. According to Deardorff, “this allows students who have fallen off track for graduation the opportunity to transfer to our program and still have the ability to graduate on time. PACE students have the opportunity to take all in-person classes, all online virtual classes, or a blended learning schedule that incorporates both in-person and virtual classes.”


That sort of flexibility is combined with a block schedule which allows students to spend longer “blocks” of time on one class with a rotating schedule every other day. This same block schedule, which has been used for some time at PACE is actually being used at Portland High School and Portland Middle School this year as a means to minimize the mixing of student cohorts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.


While PACE is primarily a 9-12 school, they do offer adult education programs for those over the age of 20 both online and in the evenings. Deardorff says that one thing that sets their adult ed program apart is that is completely free and that students earn a high school diploma rather than a GED at the end. PACE also runs credit recovery courses in the evenings during the school year and summer school programs for students from PHS and neighboring districts who have failed a course who need to get back on track to graduate on time. In addition to offering an alternative high school education, PACE staff also runs the 100% online Portland Virtual School courses which benefit students far beyond the local area as students can enroll from across the state including homeschool students, and those attending private schools looking for elective courses not offered at their school. One virtual student said that “it allows me more freedom than regular school because I can do the work on my own schedule. I work better at night so I get all of my work done when I want and not during normal school hours.”


To learn more about the programs offered by PACE contact Anthony Deardorff, Director of Adult, Alternative, and Virtual Education for Portland Public Schools at adeardorff@portlandk12.org or 517-647-2987.


PHOTO: The PACE Class of 2020 after graduation, which was held outdoors this past year due to COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Anthony Deardorff.

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