May 12, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Schools off to see the wizard

At last, the no-cost solution to saving 117 public schools slapped with either a D or an F under Maine's new one-size-fits-all school-grading system:

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Maine Department of Education's "Magic Room."

"We're literally creating a room to serve as a strategic school improvement data and center, which will meet and discuss where schools are in their school improvement work and better coordinate outreach and support," announced Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen in a news release last week.

We'll forgive the commissioner his tortured syntax -- although I can't for the life of me figure out what "a strategic school improvement data and center" means and I'm even hazier on how a room manages to "meet and discuss" anything.

Instead, let's go right to the big news: Now that Gov. Paul LePage's bell-curved grading system has produced the requisite number of "failing" or "near-failing" public schools in mostly poor regions of the state, the Department of Education is hard at work devising a plan to lift these laggards out of the educational doldrums. And how, pray tell, will the administration accomplish that herculean task?

By turning what is now a storage area deep in the bowels of the Department of Education into the Magic Room, that's how.

There, Bowen explained in his news release, calls will go out to each and every D and F school in the next few weeks to "compile data and feedback from low-performing schools to help guide improvement efforts."

And here's the best part -- at least if you're among those who think Maine's cash-strapped schools should be doing more with less: Even as it saves all those poor schools from themselves, the Magic Room won't cost taxpayers an extra nickel.

"I'm operating under the presumption there isn't going to be more money," Bowen said in an interview Friday. "So the question is, 'How do you get improvement with existing resources?' "

Bowen's plan: Survey the 117 schools, many of whose staffs are still seething from the low grades they received in the first place, and find out what they think they need to do better.

"Then what we need to do is drill down into that," Bowen said. "And try to filter that down and identify two or three things to work on."

From there, he said, his department will link schools with similar problems to schools that have found innovative solutions. That way, the problems will diminish over time and (magic alert) might even disappear altogether.

"The extent to which the department can serve as a clearinghouse and an aggregator and an agency that can better help coordinate the maximization of those resources -- I think that's what we can do," Bowen said.

All of which would sound far more believable if Bowen and his boss were committed to putting a little money where their magic is.

Instead, LePage last week submitted legislation that would remove the statutory cap on private charter schools in Maine (the limit is now 10), provide public funds to some religious schools, pay for tuition and transportation for low-income students who transfer to schools outside their districts, and provide room-and-board subsidies to students who attend charter schools beyond commuting distance from their homes.

In other words, even as the LePage administration claims to be reaching out to help all those down-and-out schools, it's also hard at work pulling the financial rug out from under them.

The duplicity, it turns out, has been in the works for months: In a memo to LePage last November, recently obtained and blogged by Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, Bowen proposed a "Choice and Opportunity Fund" that would funnel money away from low-performing (read: low-income) school districts via the very steps now enshrined in LePage's bill.

Simultaneously, Bowen suggested "legislation that takes a (low-performing) school out from under the authority of the school district and puts it under state control."

"So the real question is, how hard do you want to push on this?" Bowen asked LePage in the memo. "Let me know. Accountability is a good issue politically, I think."

Ah, the "p" word. Might politics explain why LePage, an unabashed fan of for-profit charter schools, came up with a grading system whose bell-curve design guarantees a set number of failing or near-failing schools no matter who's doing what?

(Make no mistake about it -- come election season, those F's will stand for "fodder.")

And might the Magic Room, compliments of the very commissioner who a few months ago was quietly advocating for state takeovers, leave some principals in D and F schools a little leery of now engaging with the Department of Education "in a different way," as Bowen put it last week?

Friday afternoon, I checked in with Marcia Gendron. She's the principal of East End Community School in Portland, where 19 different languages are spoken and 85 out of 425 students -- many of them homeless and/or refugees from other countries -- have arrived since the school year began in September.

Now in the middle of a three-year, $2.7-million federal "school improvement grant" aimed at truly helping schools that need it, Gendron's school has posted significant and measurable gains in student performance over the past two years.

"Our teachers stay every Wednesday for two hours," Gendron said. "They are giving up their lunch time to have meetings -- they meet two to three times a week. They are looking at student data. They are looking at meeting the diverse needs of students. This is a school where the professional staff has an extraordinary commitment to leveraging achievement."

Did I mention East End Community School got an F?

Gendron's not sure she can tell Bowen & Co. anything they don't already know -- the state has overseen her school's exhaustive grant process every step of the way.

"It would be awkward if the state now says to us, 'Oh, that plan isn't the best plan,' " she noted. "They approved it."

So exactly what will she say when her phone lights up and a wizard from the Magic Room is on the line?

"I hope I can behave that day," Gendron replied with a chuckle. "I've never been to a magic room."

Of course she hasn't.

She's too busy facing reality.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@mainetoday.com

 

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