May 9, 2013

Maine Voices: Portland High School's D grade both undeserved, highly misleading

Gov. LePage's report card looked at the wrong things, especially at this culturally diverse school.

By Laura Frank, a Portland High School junior

PORTLAND - I am a student at a D-rated high school.


Laura Frank is a junior at Portland High School.

Up until last week, I was unaware that I was attending a failing school. After almost three years at Portland High School, I thought I was going to a terrific school that offered myriad benefits and opportunities. Thank you, Gov. LePage, for setting me straight and informing me that my school is failing.

When I visited PHS in eighth grade, I had been in a public school only a few times. From pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, I had attended private schools in the Portland area, and I had the choice to continue at a private high school.

Upon entering PHS for the first time, I was greeted by then-Principal Mike Johnson, who told me, "Any student who visits PHS will want to come here."

I did not see a failing school. Rather, I saw a school with superb teachers, interesting students and varied academic choices.

The first thing I said to my mother when she picked me up was, "This is where I see myself." And I have never altered my opinion or regretted my decision to attend PHS.

My teachers throughout my three years have been well-prepared and stimulating. While they are faced with challenges posed by a limited school budget, they always rise to the occasion. My art teacher, Barbara Loring, is a prime example: She personally purchased a number of iPads for students to use in class.

But I could list numerous similar examples of the dedication of PHS teachers. Assessing PHS as a D-rated school is a slap in the faces of the teachers who are truly outstanding and committed to providing students with an excellent education.

Interestingly, numerous elite colleges and universities do not seem to embrace Gov. Le-Page's characterization of PHS as a failing school. Every year, PHS students are admitted to such schools.

This year, among the schools to which seniors were admitted are Smith, Wesleyan, Colby and Bates colleges, Harvard and Georgetown universities, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Maine Honors Program.

However, unlike some of the better-rated high schools in the area, PHS does not garner national attention for bigotry or insensitivity to an individual's race, religion or sexual orientation.

This is not insignificant. I attend a school that boasts that it has students from 41 countries, speaking 26 different languages. Not only do we all get along in a building that has its own challenges, we also learn about and respect each other's cultures and differences.

Last Thursday, the entire PHS student body attended the International Show, where students perform pieces representing their cultural heritages. These included spirited Irish step dancing, a highly choreographed piece from the Middle East and a dance performed by students from Djibouti.

Through exposure to a vast array of cultures every day, PHS has created an environment of tolerance and inclusiveness. While these intangibles cannot be measured by a standardized test, they greatly contribute to the quality of a student's educational experience.

I understand that the grade awarded to the various schools was largely based on standardized test scores.

It is interesting to note that while Gov. LePage is using standardized testing as a barometer of a school's success, many colleges and universities, including Bowdoin College, are rejecting this as a measure of achievement and are no longer requiring an applicant to submit standardized test scores.

Of course, if an assessment of the educational quality of a school is based on standardized test scores, PHS will not perform as well as other schools where students are not exposed to a broad cultural world on a daily basis.

Many students at PHS are learning English for the first time. Surprisingly, many of these students, who are attending classes, completing homework assignments and taking tests, are labeled "dropouts."

I understand that the policy is if a student cannot complete high school in four years because he or she first needs to learn English, the student is considered a dropout. Just like PHS is stigmatized by its D rating, the school system is stigmatizing these students.

The grading system enacted by Gov. LePage truly misses the mark in assessing the quality of the educational experience offered by a school. Any student who visits PHS will see firsthand what makes this school, which the governor considers failing, truly great.

— Special to the Press Herald

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