August 26, 2013

A-F ratings for schools lack incentives, influence

Without assistance or funding from the state, the report-card grading system has had minimal impact, Maine’s education leaders say.

By SUSAN McMILLAN Kennebec Journal

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Heather Perry is superintendent of Unity-based Regional School Unit 3, which had several schools with low grades. "We already had plans in place to improve those achievement results, and we're not deviating from those plans," she said.

David Leaming/Morning Sentinel

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Tome said that beyond the participation issue, there are many other projects happening in schools this year to improve education. Now, they're looking for feedback about what people need, she said.

Tome said department staff are compiling information from the first round of interviews and will try again to meet with leaders at the underperforming schools that did not participate, whether by choice or because of missed connections.

Wilson noted that Skowhegan Area High School was studied last year by University of Southern Maine researchers as an improving school, with potential lessons for other schools.

He's confident that future report cards will soon show the impact of new initiatives, like a new policy last year that students won't be allowed to graduate unless they can write and do math at least at the level required by Maine's community colleges. The district is offering targeted support to students at risk of not meeting those standards, starting in seventh grade.

Principal Josh McNaughton of Whitefield Elementary, which received an F, also has not talked with Department of Education staff since the report cards were released. He said someone from the department called, and he tried calling back twice, but nothing was ever arranged.

Based on Department of Education officials' statements when releasing the report cards, McNaughton thought the state might offer more professional development for teachers or provide staff to work with underperforming students.

He wasn't counting on additional support from the state, but is disappointed that it hasn't come through.

"I'm really disappointed that the state publicly said they would provide assistance to our schools, and it hasn't happened yet," he said.

Lomonte said the federal money, professional development and guidance that were part of the No Child Left Behind improvement process were hugely helpful to Biddeford Middle School, and replicating some of that on the state level would be more helpful than handing out letter grades.

Gardiner Area High School in RSU 11 was in a similar situation to Skowhegan, having received a D because participation on the 2012 Maine High School Assessment was 94.5 percent. Principal Chad Kempton said he expressed his frustration about the participation penalty to a Department of Education representative.

"I said, 'Give me one more student and we're a mid-C school, and we wouldn't be having the conversation,"' Kempton said. "We're really not an underperforming school."

Kempton said one thing that would help his school improve is a full review by the Portland-based Great Schools Partnership. School staff will start working with the partnership's best practices tool kit, which is available online for free, but there's no money in the budget to work with the partnership on site, which can cost $25,000 or more.

FOCUS ON THE POSITIVE?

Kempton said he would welcome financial support from the state to pay for that, but he doesn't know what the department's capacity is to help underperforming schools.

Some school leaders said the department could help by publicly acknowledging and encouraging the hard work that educators are already doing.

Outgoing Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen has tried to focus on positives during his "promising practices tour," during which he's visited several schools, including some low-rated ones, that are having success with programs that could be repeated elsewhere.

Kim Silsby, principal of Cony High and Junior High schools in Augusta, said she'd like the department to focus more on highlighting success, sharing best practices and providing professional development opportunities.

"It definitely seems like there's a tenor of, that public education isn't doing what it needs to do at this time," Silsby said. "We have so many successes that are not focused on. I think that we need our Department of Education to celebrate the successes of every school in our state. And so I think by giving schools grades based on a limited view of what's going on in those schools, it's not helpful."

Juliana Richard, principal in Bingham-based RSU 83, which includes F-rated Upper Kennebec Valley High School, said she appreciated that the person who came to interview administrators was familiar with the school's challenges from his previous work with the district through the No Child Left Behind accountability system.

"The good thing, I think, that came away was the fact that we got a chance to speak with the federal coaches that were already in place," Richard said. "It was a trusting relationship, not just someone coming in after reading the newspaper."

Susan McMillan can be contacted at 621-5645 or at:

smcmillan@mainetoday.com

 

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