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CBHS Principal Derek Pierce Wins $100,000, Lots of Praise

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CBHS Principal Derek Pierce Wins $100,000, Lots of Praise
Posted on 12/16/2014

Casco Bay High School Principal Derek Pierce was described as the kind of educator who dares students “to do the impossible,” as he was awarded the Nellie Mae Education Foundation’s 3rd Annual Larry O’Toole Award on Dec. 16. The award, which included a $100,000 check that will go to enhance student programs at CBHS, is given out each year to proponents of student-centered learning.

“It’s way past time to reshape and modernize education, especially in high school,” said Nicholas Donohue, President and CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, which is the largest philanthropic organization in New England devoted exclusively to education. Donohue said education needs to be more adaptive to students so they “don’t have to do fit into the box that is school. And they’re doing that at Casco Bay.”

The Larry O’Toole Award is a $100,000 grant that Nellie Mae awards annually to a school, community organization or district to advance student-centered approaches to learning for all students. Student-centered learning prepares students to master both the academic knowledge and the critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills they need to thrive.

Pierce’s win marks the first time a Maine principal or school organization has won the award, for which there is one nominee from each New England state. For the first time, the public had the chance to vote for the award winner online, making Pierce this year’s winner with 6,444 out of more than17,000 total votes cast. Voting took place in September.

At the Dec. 16 ceremony, Pierce said it was “a great honor” to win the award. He said he loves his job, loves partnering with the families of Casco Bay High School students and loves the outstanding faculty at the high school. Pierce also added, “I love Casco Bay students. You make me learn and laugh and think hard and feel hard everyday.”

CBHS student Caity Conley was one of several speakers at the event. “Mr. Pierce is in the center of everything, making freshman feel welcome, lending a helping hand and daring everyone to do the impossible,” the high school senior said.

Pierce is the founding principal of the Portland Public Schools’ Casco Bay High School, which was founded in 2005. The high school is a Mentor school within the Expeditionary Learning network and is recognized as a national leader in project-based and "deeper" learning. It is intentionally smaller, with only 97 students per grade level, so staff can get to know each student deeply. The school requires each student to apply to college and so far, 97 percent of Casco Bay High School graduates have been accepted to college.

Maine’s Acting Commissioner of Education Rachelle Tome also spoke at the event, calling CBHS an exemplary school. She praised Pierce for setting high expectations for students, treating teachers as partners and remaining connected to the classroom, knowing the name of every student and “remaining personally invested in their success,” by doing such things as writing college recommendations for them.

Portland Public Schools Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk also spoke, thanking Nellie Mae for the award to the district and praising Pierce and other Portland Public Schools’ staff for their efforts to ensure student success. “Derek Pierce is an inspirational leader who exemplifies the students-first approach we value here in Portland,” Caulk said.

Other speakers include Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, who referred to a Yeats’ quote: "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Brennan said that at Casco Bay High School, “they light fires.”

Maine Sen. Anne Haskell also spoke, calling Pierce and Casco Bay High School “a shining example of what can be done and should be done across the state.”

Pierce said the award money will be used as follows:

        $50,000 for scholarships that ensure that all CBHS students, regardless of family income, can take part in annual learning expeditions.

        $25,000 will be dedicated to equipment, such as a 3D printer, for a nascent “Maker Lab” so CBHS students can invent, experiment and create.

        $15,000 will be reserved for micro-grants to students for projects that address local needs.

        $10,000 will be allocated for the school’s new fitness room, for equipment such as a rowing machine.

See a video of the ceremony here.


From left, CBHS Principal Derek Pierce stands with Maine's Acting Education Commissioner Rachelle Tome;
Nellie Mae Education Foundation President/CEO Nicholas Donohue and Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk as he receives the Larry O'Toole Award.


CBHS senior Caity Conley stands with her school's principal, Derek Pierce after he won a
$100,000 grant for the school. Conley said Pierce dares students "to do the impossible."