AUGUSTA, Maine — The state Department of Education on Tuesday identified what it called the state’s 10 “persistently lowest-achieving schools,” thereby deeming those schools eligible for a total of $12 million in federal school improvement grants.
Education Commissioner Susan Gendron characterized the release of the list as “an incredible opportunity” for the identified schools, but at least one high school administrator from northern Maine said his school may have been unfairly targeted.
Principal Marty Bouchard said Houlton Junior-Senior High School has shown progress by many measures, just not in the areas used by the state to produce the list.
“I find it hard to imagine that the state wouldn’t use numerous sets of data or assessments to truly identify the lowest-performing schools,” Bouchard said. “I think there are other ways to work with schools to help improve student achievement rather than hitting entire communities like this.”
In addition to Houlton Junior-Senior High School, the schools identified Tuesday were: Deer Isle-Stonington High School; the Governor James B. Longley Elementary School in Lewiston; Riverton Elementary School in Portland; Sumner Memorial High School in Sullivan, Carrabec High School in North Anson; Hodgdon High School; Lake Region High School in Naples; Livermore Falls High School; and Madison Area High School.
According to a news release Tuesday, the state Department of Education used federal criteria to produce the list, namely low levels of achievement in math and reading over a three-year period, coupled with a low level of improvement.
The identified schools were listed in two categories. Those that receive Title 1 funding — which is reserved for areas with low-income families — but have not made progress for two or more years according to the federal No Child Left Behind Act were classified as “Tier 1 Schools.” High schools eligible for Title 1 funds but whose districts use those funds in other schools were classified as “Tier 2 Schools.”
Eight of the ten schools identified were high schools.
“The fact that we utilize Title 1 funds at our high school and there are only 12 other high schools in Maine that do so was a factor,” said Bouchard, who was the only one of several administrators from the schools who returned calls from the Bangor Daily News on Tuesday. “We were led to believe and we thought we were making progress.”
The 10 named schools have the opportunity to apply for a share of $12 million in federal school improvement grants, but the schools must adopt one of four aggressive plans for improvement: the “Turnaround Model,” in which a school must replace its principal and at least half its staff; the “Restart Model,” in which a school must close and reopen as a charter school; the “School Closure Model,” in which a school must close and move students elsewhere; and the “Transformational Model,” in which a district must replace principals who have been at a school more than two years, must train teachers and administrators, implement various reforms, ex-tend learning and planning time and adjust other operating procedures.
The state Department of Education said Tuesday that the Transformational Model “may be the most common option in Maine.”
Schools must file a letter of intent to apply for the federal funding by April 2, followed by a full application by May 7, but no school is required to participate.
Walter Harris, a University of Maine professor who is co-director of the Maine Education Policy Research Institute, sees this program as a “wonderful opportunity” for the schools identified, though he predicted that no one would enjoy being on the list.
“Community members might be upset, but this is reality,” he said. “Maine certainly has some challenges in bringing equity to students across the state, and this will go a long way toward that end.”
Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, the Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, said he also saw opportunity disguised as an ominous list to be on.
“Maine is moving ahead in places that I don’t believe we ever have as far as thinking about linking student performance to teachers and principals,” said Alfond. “I think our committee feels that we are moving in a good direction.”
Last week, Gov. John Baldacci and Gendron presented three bills to the Education Committee that together represent the state’s latest push in education reform. One bill would allow student assessment data to be used for performance evaluations for teachers. Another would allow Maine to use federal “Common Core State Standards Initiative” standards in the state’s Learning Results system. And a third would enable Maine schools to enact federal “Race to the Top” criteria to establish innovative schools.
Alfond said the student assessment and “Race to the Top” bills were voted out of committee recently by 9-1 votes. Alfond saw that as evidence that Baldacci, Gendron and the Legislature are serious about education reform.
House GOP leaders disagreed in a news release circulated Tuesday.
“The three bills submitted last week by Commissioner Gendron do not make the grade to help us compete for a federal school reform grant,” said Rep. Josh Tardy, R-Newport, the House minority leader. “We see a half-hearted effort that will be heavily outclassed by reforms in many other states.”
Meanwhile, Bouchard is preparing for a slew of phone calls from Houlton-area residents.
“Obviously our faculty and staff are disappointed,” he said. “I think our community will be disappointed. I expect people to have a lot of questions.”