Failing Students

Posted March 24, 2010, at 5:36 p.m.

Being labeled as “low achieving” is a stinging assessment. However, when that label comes with money and a plan for needed improvement, the sting should be short-lived.

That’s the situation 10 Maine schools find themselves in. Earlier this month, the Maine Department of Education named the state’s 10 “persistently lowest-achieving schools.” They are: Houlton High School; Hodgdon High School; Deer Isle-Stonington High School; Madison Area High School; Sumner Memorial High School in Sullivan; Carrabec High School in North Anson; the Governor James B. Longley Elementary School in Lewiston; Riverton Elementary School in Portland; Lake Region High School in Naples; and Livermore Falls High School.

The schools were identified using federal criteria that identified low achievement levels in math and reading over a three-year period. The schools also did not show much improvement over that time period.

Some schools are complaining that they didn’t deserve to be on the list. “I think there are other ways to work with schools to help improve student achievement rather than hitting entire communities like this,” said Marty Bouchard, principal of Houlton High School.

His frustration is understandable, but arguing whether a school should have been listed in the bottom 10 or 20 or 50 misses an important point. At Houlton High School, for example, fewer than half the students have been rated as proficient for the last three years under the standards set by the federal No Child Left Behind law. That means more than half the school’s students aren’t meeting standards, so clearly there is much room for improvement.

For those identified as low achieving, that improvement will be subsidized by the federal government — if they accept the money. The school board in Houlton voted not to seek the funds. This is shortsighted.

The 10 schools identified in Maine are eligible for a total of $12 million in federal school improvement grants.

To receive a grant the schools must adopt one of four improvement plans that range from closing the school to turning it into a charter school to replacing the principal, retraining staff and changing how the school operates. The latter, known as the transformation model, is most likely to be adopted in Maine, largely because of the state’s strong preference for local control.

These are aggressive reform measures, but based on the low levels of achievement at the identified schools, they are necessary. Further, if they are successful, they will be a model for improvements across the state, enabling the 10 schools to be labeled as positive examples of needed change.

Schools must notify the Department of Education of their intent to apply for the funds by April 2. All 10 should apply.

“This has to be a wake-up call to the school board that as a taxpayer, I expect more for my tax dollars,” Richard Rhoda of Houlton told the school board this week. “The school needs to do better.”

He’s right.

The 10 schools on the state’s list are not the only ones that need help as far too many of the state’s schools are failing to teach students what they need to know. But the 10 on the list are fortunate to be offered financial help to turn things around.

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