SOUTH PORTLAND — The School Board opted not to change the high school grading system to account for learning difficulties during the coronavirus pandemic – but not before lengthy public debate and accusations the district and school board did not give the public adequate notice or input on the issue.

The measure would have suspended the usual grading system for second semester classes at the high school and instead substitute a system where all students would receive a grade of “pass” or “insufficient evidence.”

School Superintendent Ken Kunin said the main reason for his recommendation is that it would have been the best way to accommodate students whose grades may be falling behind due to difficulties adjusting to online learning.

“While we are working to ensure that all of our students have access to materials and resources, we cannot guarantee 100% of our students will have access either to the materials and resources or to teachers’ expertise necessary to bring up their grades,” Kunin wrote in an informational packet ahead of Monday’s meeting.

Both residents and students weighed in. Resident Claire Holman supported the measure, saying, “It’s going to be best for the most vulnerable students in our system.”

Peter Stocks, also a local resident, said when researching the issue, colleges told him they will not punish students who have a simplified grading system, but there will be fewer data points to judge those students’ performance.

“They’ll treat it simply as a void,” he said.

Stocks also criticized the district for not informing parents directly about the proposed change, leaving few opportunities for them to get involved.

High school student Evelyn Seltzer also accused officials of not letting students and parents have more say.

“This is the one chance I have had to share my voice,” she said. “That is ridiculous, and not only undermines the school board, but the students and the community itself.”

One student who spoke up in favor of the measure was Blake Morin, who said she has a learning disability and is one of the students who is being harmed the most by the traditional system.

“School has never been very easy for me,” she said.

The board voted the proposal down 5-2, with Elyse Tipton and Vice Chairwoman Heather Johnson voting for the measure.

Tifton said she believed high-achieving students were not at risk with the proposed system.

“I think that this temporary way of grading will not now or in the future harm the lives of students who have been able to continue their high achievement,” she said.

Johnson agreed, saying she trusts the recommendations of teachers, principals and administrators to change the system.

Mary House, who voted against, said she was concerned about its impact on college-bound students.

“I just don’t know how we can say and guarantee that it may not harm our students,” she said.

Both student representatives on the board were in support, but both had harsh words for how the district crafted the proposal. Rosalie Saffer-Meng said the only real discussion of the proposal took place at a May 4 workshop that was mislabeled a “budget workshop” on the town calendar.

“I am disappointed in the process through which (the proposal) was written,” she said.

School Board member Richard Matthews, who noted he rarely speaks out at meetings, acknowledged “mistakes were made along the way” and apologized to the public.

“I don’t think the lack of transparency was done on purpose,” he said.

Kunin later acknowledged to The Forecaster that mislabeling the workshop made it harder for the public to get involved, saying, “that was a mistake on our part.” He said, however, that he gave the board notice as far back as its April 13 meeting that the district was looking into the issue, and the May 4 workshop gave the board ample time to discuss the matter.

“I think that’s a reasonable process,” he said.

As to how the district would handle grading in the wake of the board’s ruling, Kunin said the proposed change would have made things simpler, but the current system will not be impossible for teachers and students to navigate.

“It just makes it a little more complicated, but we can do it,” he said.

Sean Murphy: 780-9094

Email: [email protected]

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