CARIBOU, Maine – Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen told a crowd of 60 teachers, school administrators and school board members that he wanted to get a sense of what is going on “outside the bubble of Augusta” when he continued his listening tour at Caribou Middle School on Wednesday evening.
And those present gave the commissioner an earful during the two-hour meeting, asking for more support for teachers, more money for education and one standardized test that will allow the state to measure how all students are progressing educationally.
Bowen began his statewide listening tour immediately after he accepted his new position. It will take him to Maine’s nine superintendent regions in his first 100 days as education commissioner.
During his tour day stop in Aroostook County, Bowen visited Houlton Elementary School in Houlton to see the advances the school has made thanks to a nearly $1 million Reading First grant. He also met with local superintendents before the public forum in Caribou. On Thursday, he visited the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone.
Many educators at the forum were adamant that the state had to do more to advocate for its teachers. One Washburn educator said that the Department of Education does not do enough to support and defend teachers.
Tim Crowley, president of Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle, agreed.
“I think that advocating for teachers is the most important thing,” he told Bowen. “They are really getting kicked around in this conversation about Maine state retirement benefits.”
Bowen agreed. He said the department does not do enough to educate the public about teacher and student success.
“The DOE is not a clear and effective communicator,” he said. “Our website is atrocious. Our communication is sporadic. We don’t do a good job of getting into schools and talking to teachers and students.
“We need to make the DOE a resource for people and a platform for sharing back and forth,” he continued. “We need to tell our success stories.”
He told the crowd that he would “never say that teachers are getting paid too much.”
Several school board members were concerned about the lingering effects of the school consolidation law. A number of Aroostook County schools have been penalized because voters in their districts have not agreed to consolidate with other districts.
Bowen said that the Department of Education soon will propose the end of financial penalties for failing to consolidate.
“I think we can move in the direction of allowing individual districts to collaborate with each other,” he said. “I think that there are savings to be had by encouraging school districts to work together and make dual purchases of goods in bulk.”
Bowen was complimentary of the efforts by Houlton Elementary School to increase literacy among its students. The district received what originally was a three-year, $835,040 grant in June 2006. The goal at the end of the grant cycle was to have 85 percent of the students demonstrating reading proficiency that was at or above grade level by the time they reached third grade.
The funding was used to improve reading skills among elementary school pupils, purchase books and educational materials and assist teachers in finding new ways to enhance literacy. The district also used a portion of the award to hire a literary intervention specialist and literacy coaches.
Based on the gains made, the district secured an additional two years of grant funding, bringing nearly $1 million into its schools. By the end of the grant cycle, the school had met its goal.
“The school is doing amazing stuff thanks to that grant,” Bowen told the crowd. “The transformation has been astonishing. We need to replicate it all over the place.”
Teachers also asked for one consistent standardized test to measure how their students are progressing compared to others in the state.
Bowen also said he was in favor of allowing school districts more control in areas such as scheduling and in continuing to advance technology in the classrooms.
He pledged that he would continue to interact with educators outside of Augusta and before the end of the meeting asked teachers to keep in touch with him.