Thursday, May 23, 2013
PORTLAND - Maine's largest school system is at a crossroads.
New superintendent Manny Caulk has a lot of experience overseeing schools with high populations of minorities and immigrants.
John Ewing/Staff Photographer
School officials have been working for the past five years to bring stability and transparency to a system that was so badly managed that administrators at one point didn't know how many people worked in the district or what they were paid.
With finances now under control, officials are turning their attention to the classroom. Although the system still sends its elite high school graduates to some of the nation's top colleges, the quality of the district's academic programs is widely seen as uneven and lacking in rigor.
The school board's agenda is ambitious. Officials want to increase academic performance so families can be assured that their children can receive a quality education in Portland no matter which school they attend, according to interviews with board members and administration officials.
Board members are particularly focused on retaining the confidence of middle-class families, who have the resources to move to the suburbs or send their children to private schools. The board wants to boost graduation rates, update computer technology, overhaul the city's elementary facilities and redraw district lines.
The board has yet to decide how to reach its goals, however. Proposals such as aligning class schedules among the high schools or creating specialized academic programs at individual schools are all on the table.
To lead the effort, they've hired a new superintendent, Manny Caulk, a former school administrator from Philadelphia.
Many parents are frustrated with the inability of the school board to make the hard decisions that shake up the status quo, and parents are hoping that Caulk will be a strong leader who can make changes, said Kristin Sims-Kastelein, president of the Ocean Avenue Parent Teacher Organization.
Right now, the schools are working well for the top 1 percent of the students who are accepted into the district's gifted and talented program, while everyone else is stuck on the "middle of the road" track, she said.
"We have supported mediocrity in our school system for far too long," she said. "There is a lot of hope (that Caulk) can take us to the next level. There is a willingness to be creative and try something new."
But parents are losing patience, she said, noting that three classmates in her son's third-grade class last year transferred to private schools.
The challenge that Portland officials face, however, is this: Portland schools are increasingly serving students who are either poor or are immigrants with limited English proficiency, or both.
This year, 27 percent of students are classified as having limited English proficiency, an increase of 7 percentage points since the 2006-2007 school year.
Nearly 52 percent of the district's 7,000 students qualify for the free and reduced-price lunch program, an increase of 10 percentage points in just six years, in part due to the recession.
The district is below state averages on a number of measures.
The graduation rate at Deering High School is at the state average of 84 percent, but the graduation rate at the city's other two high schools is below average, with Casco Bay High School at 77 percent and Portland High School at 75 percent.
As a whole, district students perform below the state average on standardized tests in math and slightly below in reading.
Fifty-seven percent of Portland's elementary and middle school students were proficient or higher in math, 6 percentage points below the state average, according to the scores of last year's New England Common Assessment Program test. In reading, 69 percent of fifth- and eighth-graders were proficient or higher -- 3 points below the state average.
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