Saturday, March 8, 2014
PORTLAND – Parents of students at Hall Elementary School reacted harshly Wednesday to news that their school had been given an F under the state's new grading system.
"I'm flabbergasted," said Laurie Chiasson, whose son is a fourth-grader. "In my experience, this is a great school."
"It's ridiculous," said Mike Sargent, who has two kids at the school. "The governor and the education commissioner have no business rating schools like this. They need to let teachers do their jobs."
Parents and students at schools around Greater Portland expressed both misgivings and support for Gov. Paul LePage's newest education reform initiative: A letter grade system for each school in the state.
Annette MacKenzie was the only parent among a dozen or so who spoke after school Wednesday who said she was neither surprised nor outraged.
"I would transfer my kids if I could," she said, and send them to Longfellow Elementary, which is less than two miles from Hall and draws students from similar or adjacent neighborhoods. It was given an A by the state.
"I can't believe that we could have two schools that close together be that far apart," Chiasson said.
The grading system is based mostly on standardized test scores. Critics have said it's overly simplistic and doesn't capture all of the factors that could affect a school's scores.
In Portland, one of Maine's most diverse communities both culturally and economically, most of the schools received poor grades. In more affluent communities such as Cape Elizabeth and Falmouth, the grades were generally much better.
Parents of Hall school students said the biggest factor in their school's performance is the large number of English-language students. The school also draws heavily from low-income neighborhoods.
"I think it's unbelievably unfair to penalize these schools for their diversity," said Shannon Doughty, the parent of a fourth-grader and a first-grader at Hall. "I've been extremely happy with the school."
Sean Kelsey, who also has two children at the school, said one of his biggest concerns is whether his kids are getting a good education. He said he hasn't had any complaints about Hall and hopes the grade is not indicative of what happens inside.
"I don't really know what to think about this," he said. "I can't believe it won't affect the morale of teachers, who are already dealing with budget cuts."
Students at Portland High School, which got a D from the state, weren't surprised by the poor grade but said they don't think it matters.
Eedy Doyon, a freshman, said she feels that the grade reflects low expectations.
Nicole Hasking, also a freshman, said she doesn't like the idea of grading schools as a whole because each school has a wide variety of students, particularly Portland High.
"That doesn't seem fair," she said.
Matt Talbot, a junior, said grading an entire school is a broad measurement that doesn't reflect its dynamics. He said he probably agrees with Portland's grade but doesn't necessarily think that means the school is bad.
"Portland has a reputation now that isn't really accurate," he said. "Because we have more diversity and more culture, people think certain things, but they are not always true."
Ivy Bateman, a junior, said the grade doesn't change anything for her. She said she went to Deering High and hated it. Deering also received a D from the state.
Most students said they wouldn't transfer to another school, even if they had the choice.
Shannon McGorrill, a junior, said she doesn't think the grade means anything. "I'm not going to lose sleep over it."
McGorrill said Portland has a large number of English learners because the city has programs to bring in those students.
Asked whether those students are bringing the school down, McGorrill said, "No, not the school, just the test scores. But English isn't their first language, so what do you expect?"
Liz Torrey, a Westbrook High School senior who spoke at a press conference held in Augusta on Wednesday to announce the grading system, said the measure is not perfect.
She suggested that it be modified to include factors such as the percentage of a high school's graduates who need remedial courses in college. She also said the system should account for the greater challenges in some communities, such as the number of English language learners in Westbrook.
"As long as the system remains flexible and open-minded, the new grading system will be a positive development for schools in the long run," Torrey said.
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: