GORHAM – A team from the Maine Education Policy Research Institute spent two days at Gorham High School last week, trying to figure out why it’s one of 90 schools in the state that are both higher-performing and cost-efficient.
During two 10-hour visits, on Tuesday and Wednesday, team members observed 100 classes, conducting “walk-throughs” that lasted about three minutes each. They took note of class sizes, use of technology and level of student engagement. They pored over school records and assessed the condition of school facilities. They interviewed groups of students, parents and staff members.
“Just about every constituency you can imagine had some input,” said Principal Chris Record. “It was a great opportunity to learn more about our school. I think we have some things we do well and some things we can do better. I’m looking forward to seeing the report.”
Two-person research teams are visiting 25 schools across Maine to discern the qualities of higher-performing and cost-efficient schools, said David Silvernail, co-director of the research institute.
The visits started in December and are expected to conclude in early April.
The institute plans to report its overall findings this spring to the Legislature’s education committee, which commissioned the study two years ago. More detailed reports will be issued to each of the 25 schools visited.
Most of the 25 are among 90 elementary, middle and high schools that the institute has identified as higher-performing and cost-efficient, Silvernail said. About one-quarter of the schools being visited are considered “typical,” meaning they do some things well, but not all.
“Our charge is to promote the best practices so folks, if they’re interested, don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” said state Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, a retired vocational education teacher who is chairman of the education committee.
Officials released only a partial list of the schools they are reviewing. A complete list of the top 90 and the 25 schools visited will be released when the institute presents its findings to the education committee, Silvernail said.
However, the teams have visited the following higher-performing and cost-efficient schools: Windham Middle, Kingfield Elementary, Strong Elementary, Carmel Elementary, William Cohen Middle in Bangor, Hampden Academy, Bowdoin Central, Bowdoinham Community, Winthrop Grade School and Dr. Levesque Elementary in Frenchville.
Typical schools visited include Sanford Middle, Windham High and Wagner Middle in Hampden.
In the coming weeks, research teams will visit Marshwood High in South Berwick and Scarborough High (both higher-performing and cost-efficient), as well as Brown Elementary in South Portland and one of two South Portland middle schools, yet to be determined (both typical).
Only nine high schools are on the list of 90 higher-performing and cost-efficient schools.
The institute, which is based at the University of Southern Maine and the University of Maine, developed the list of 90 schools by comparing standardized test scores, graduation rates and spending levels among similar schools across the state.
The top 90 had test scores above the state average on annual proficiency exams in 2007-08 and 2008-09, Silvernail said. They also performed above expectation when students’ socioeconomic backgrounds, special education needs and past performance were taken into account.
The top 90 also had graduation rates that were above the state average of about 80 percent and spending that was in line with the state average for similar schools.
“You could have two schools spending about the same amount of money and getting very different results,” Silvernail said.
The visiting teams are being led by Richard Barnes, a retired USM education professor, and Kenneth Kunin, former principal of Deering High School in Portland, Silvernail said. The visiting teams weren’t available for comment.
At Gorham High, Principal Chris Record isn’t exactly sure what brought Kunin’s team to his school.
His budget this year was about $7.3 million to educate 866 students, according to the school district’s website. And Gorham High’s graduation rate is 92 percent, he said.
“That alone says we work hard, with all kinds of kids, to help them be successful,” Record said. “We also have highly committed professionals across our staff and we treat our students as individuals.”
Two new programs at Gorham High probably caught the visiting team’s eye, Record said.
One is Bridges, an alternative education program that serves a small group of freshmen who were identified in middle school as being at risk of dropping out of high school.
In addition to studying regular subjects, Bridges students learn about conflict resolution and participate weekly in the Compass Project boat-building program in Portland. Ten students started the program last fall; eight are still in it and earning a B grade average overall. Record said he hopes to expand the program to 15 students next fall.
Another new program at Gorham High is a freshman academy system, developed to ease the transition for all students into high school. Freshman faculty members have divided into three academies, each with an English, science, social studies and math teacher.
Freshmen are assigned to teachers within one academy in an effort to foster greater collaboration and communication among teachers and build stronger relationships between teachers and students.
Record said he’s looking forward to seeing the results of research institute’s study and learning what other schools are doing to help their students succeed in a global marketplace.
“The more schools work together, the better off we’ll all be,” Record said. “The more we open our schools and our classrooms to each other, the better we’ll be able to change and adapt our programs so our students can compete with students in China and India.”
Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: