Ten Maine high schools have received news that they are “improvement schools,” an improvement over last year’s harsher designation of “persistently low-achieving schools.”
Superintendents of the designated schools support the purpose of the listing — to achieve the federal No Child Left Behind Act’s requirement for “adequate yearly progress.” But they object to the use of reading and math SAT scores as the chief measure of that progress.
They generally express humiliation and outrage at having their high schools pilloried as the worst examples by means of a process that they consider biased and unfair. Students have resented the affronts to their pride in their schools. All of the superintendents who were questioned agreed that their schools had been given a needless and unfair black eye.
They are not the worst, and they may not be the 10 that most need federal aid, but with an influx of federal cash, they have a rare opportunity to remake themselves, which dulls the stigma.
In 2005, then-Education Commissioner Susan Gendron led in switching the basis for rating progress from the Maine Educational Assessment (MEA) to the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) for 11th-graders. Critics at the time called this a rushed and misguided decision because the SAT only predicts college grades and was never intended as a screening standard for educational progress.
Schools on the list face a June 1 application deadline for possible federal financial grants to help them improve. If a school wins and accepts the federal aid, it must choose between two options: Firing the principal and strengthening staff and program or replacing the principal and firing half the staff. Two other options, closing the school or converting it into a charter school, are not practical in Maine.
In Ellsworth, the RSU school board has voted to apply for the funds and replace William Conners, who has been principal of Ellsworth High School for seven years.
At the Fort Kent Community High School, Superintendent Patrick O’Neill said the board had decided to seek federal funds but would ask to redefine the role Principal Timothy Doak rather than dismiss him.
Superintendent Terry A. Comeau said that the Southern Aroostook Community School in the tiny town of Dyer Brook, will not seek additional federal money. He said the school is making adequate yearly progress, though it lost a little ground in a three-year average.
Oak Hill High School in Wales will not seek federal funds, said Superintendent James Hodgkin. He added that the school is making adequate progress. He said he understood that a better rating system was being planned and that the SAT basis might be dropped even sooner.
While some schools clearly need help and guidance, state officials should be receptive to such concerns.