Since Todd West started his job as principal of struggling Deer Isle-Stonington High School 2.5 years ago, there have been some major changes. Student suspensions have fallen by 65 percent, teacher collaboration is improving and the school has instituted a tutoring program. Despite that, the state Department of Education recently had some news that shook West and others from the rural community to the core. The high school was on the state’s list of the 10 most “persistently low-achieving” schools, a controversial designation determined by a federally mandated formula. It means that Deer Isle-Stonington High School can apply for a share of $12 million in federal school improvement grants, if the school board and administration agree to aggressively turn around the school using one of four models.
The bad news is that one way to be eligible for the funds, schools would need to replace principals who have been at a school more than two years — and West would be out of a job.
To be eligible for funds, a low-achieving school must: replace its principal and at least half its staff; close and reopen as a charter school, which are not allowed by Maine law; close and move students elsewhere; or replace principals who have been at a school more than two years, along with other changes. This doesn’t sit well with longtime school board member Skip Greenlaw of Stonington, who said Friday that he plans to try to contact U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to see if there’s a way the school can get some grant money without firing its principal.
“I think Todd is very invested in what he’s doing,” Greenlaw said. “I think he’s made incredible strides toward increasing the educational opportunity for our students. If there’s going to be no waiver of firing the principal, there’s no sense in filling out the grant application.”
The negative fallout from the release of the list has come as an unpleasant surprise to the state Department of Education, according to spokesman David Connerty-Marin.
Deer Isle-Stonington High School is joined by Governor James B. Longley Elementary School in Lewiston, Houlton High School, Riverton Elementary School in Portland, Sumner Memorial High School in Sullivan, Carrabec High School in North Anson, Hodgdon High School in SAD 70, Lake Region High School in Naples, Livermore Falls High School and Madison Area High School.
One main factor in determining the list was low levels of achievement in math and reading over a three-year period, coupled with a low level of improvement. These levels were determined mainly by the results of the SAT, which is used in Maine to assess high school achievement.
Earlier this week, Houlton held an emotional public hearing in which many spoke out against the idea that their school was a failing school. The school board voted Wednesday to turn down the money.
“Houlton says they’re not one of the 10 worst schools in the state. We say: ‘You’re right. You’re absolutely right,’” Connerty-Marin said. “The ranking is not significant. The real question is: When you look at the percent of students meeting the standards, are you satisfied with that? I would say, if you have less than 100 percent of your students meeting standards, you’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Kenneth Smith, superintendent at Carrabec High School, agrees with that assessment.
“I think it’s an opportunity to turn things around,” he said. “The test data speaks for itself, and there’s no sense refuting it. I think it’s a golden opportunity. It’s not just the money — it’s what the money can do.”
Smith said that jump-starting Carrabec — a small, rural high school like many on the list — will be a lot of work but “very exciting.”
He said he is pleased by President Barack Obama’s approach to education, which he calls “reward instead of punish.”
“You have to look at the effect of poverty,” he said. “Somerset County is one of the poorer areas of the state. With that amount of help on the part of the state and federal government, and the help of people locally, things can get turned around.”
While other educators say they’re all for turning their schools around, they may not be willing to pay the price, which is not limited to replacing the principal. In Central Falls, R.I., the principal and all the teachers at Central Falls High School were fired at the end of February as the school board adopted the Turnaround Model for the low-performing school.
In Maine, some educators have crystallized their disapproval of the process in their dislike of the way the state now assesses high school student performance and improvement. In 2006, the state replaced the 11th grade Maine Education Assessment with the SAT, which is designed to measure students’ preparedness for admission to college. State Education Commissioner Susan Gendron argued the move would make college more accessible to students.
But many, including University of Maine education professor Gordon Donaldson, say the college aptitude exam is far from a perfect fit for Maine students and that it should not be the primary means of evaluating student — and school — success.
“Some people think they’ve been hit over the head with a blunt instrument, and that instrument is the SAT,” he said. “The SAT’s purpose is to predict success in college. These schools have other data that shows they are improving. It’s just not showing up with the SAT.” West agrees, describing how it can be hard to persuade students who know they will become lobstermen to give their all to a single four-hour exam. “We go to great lengths to convince kids to come on a Saturday [to take the SAT]. It borders on bribery,” he said. “A lot of kids, to their credit, find this test to be very meaningful. Other kids know they’re not going to college. They just want to zip through their answer sheet as quickly as they can and get out.”
According to Donaldson, some elements of the federal models make sense. In the Transformational Model, which he calls the most practical for Maine, the emphasis is on helping the staff learn new methods. “I would like to see the money be made available for these 10 schools without their being restricted to the four choices,” Donaldson said. “Let them put together a plan and have that plan evaluated. If the government doesn’t think it’s an adequately rigorous or courageous plan, they wouldn’t get the money.”
Making the four models inflexible, he argued, in the end benefits no one.
That is what Superintendent Bob Webster wrote in an e-mail to Skip Greenlaw regarding the possible replacement of his principal.
“Replacing Todd doesn’t make any sense,” Webster wrote. “Firing him would be beyond stupid — it would be a dishonorable act. … If the school committee let Todd go, I would resign.”
The AP contributed to this report.