Columnist who blasted Stearns in Chinese newspaper stands by opinion, plans to visit Millinocket

Posted June 13, 2011, at 2:16 p.m.
Last modified June 13, 2011, at 8:03 p.m.

MILLINOCKET, Maine ― Patrick Mattimore is no tool for Communist propaganda.

Reacting to articles on the websites of The Atlantic magazine and Bangor Daily News, the New York-born and Connecticut-raised former assistant district attorney and high school teacher stood by his opinions of Stearns High School as a run-of-the-mill educational institution.

“I don’t think that’s an unfair characterization,” Mattimore said Monday from his home in Beijing during an interview. “I taught at a school like that for 10 years in [South] San Francisco. It was right at or below the state averages. From what I could see in doing background research on it, it [Stearns] is not a thriving high school.”

Mattimore pointed to Stearns’ students work on the Maine High School Assessment tests given annually. There the percentage of juniors at Stearns meeting state standards for writing, reading and math stood between 31 and 41 percent in the latest round of testing for which scores are available, all under the state’s averages.

Only in science did Stearns meet the typical state standard for proficiency, with 48 percent graded as proficient, according to the MHSA tests Stearns juniors took in May 2010. The number of Stearns students graded as performing at levels of distinction is also below the state averages in critical reading, writing and science, but slightly ahead in math. Stearns students did much better than the state average in the bottom two rankings, for students who have achieved “partial” proficiency and those who are “below” proficient.

“That might not be a great term to use. I don’t mean it to be insulting,” he added, “but my sense was that their [Millinocket school officials] getting kids in there might be a little bit desperate,” or driven by a need for money, he said.

Yet Mattimore also admitted that he could be wrong, so, he plans to follow up. Mattimore will be in Connecticut visiting family around the Fourth of July holiday and said he contacted Millinocket Superintendent of Schools Kenneth Smith on Monday to see if he could meet Smith and other town leaders and tour the school and town.

Smith said he would welcome the visit, though he wondered why Mattimore didn’t contact anyone from Millinocket before publishing his piece.

“I’ll show him what we have and dispel all of his misnomers. We put a huge amount of time into this thing,” Smith said of his international student program.

Smith wrote point-by-point rebuttals late last week to an editorial column the 60-year-old Mattimore wrote on June 6 in the online version of The Global Times, China’s state-owned, state-operated newspaper, which has a readership of almost twice that of the New York Times.

“Stearns is a run-of-the-mill high school and doesn’t appear on any ‘best high school lists,’” Mattimore wrote. “The school building is over 40 years old. The school has only one Advanced Placement class and the school maps date from the Cold War era.”

Stearns, said Smith, had championship-caliber choir, jazz band and math and football teams, showing that the school had many excellent students and was exceptionally well-rounded, despite its small size. Accreditation reviewers who examined the school in 2006 lauded its exceptionally caring teaching staff and the fine one-to-one instruction the staff gave students.

Smith also said that Stearns served a range of students of widely varying academic abilities, but that the school’s best students went to all the top universities that students from the best-scoring state schools attended.

One of the United States’ oldest magazines, The Atlantic, answered Mattimore last Thursday with Associate Editor Max Fisher calling the Global Times China’s “leading producer of cheesy propaganda.”

China, “attempting to combat the brain drain that for decades has siphoned away much of the country’s top talent, would rather its best students not run off to New England,” Fisher wrote.

Mattimore attempted in his article to warn Chinese parents that not all American education is ideal. He was influenced, he said, by U.S. universities that had rushed into international programs in search of fast money and failed to give enough support for their recruits.

“I am not a Socialist or Communist, even though I have lived in France and China, but if I have leftist leanings, blame it on my many years living in San Francisco, not abroad,” he said.

Mattimore is not the first international or foreign journalist to discuss Millinocket schools critically. A reporter for the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail described Millinocket’s test scores as “poor” in an article written on April 4 that discussed the growth of international student programs in high schools across America. Maine has several high schools that are attempting to recruit Chinese or Asian students to offset declining enrollments or make money with international-student tuition, including Orono High School and Bangor’s John Bapst.

Public schools in places such as Virginia Beach, Va.; Tacoma, Wash.; Lavaca, Ark.; Chicago; and Hopkinton and Arlington, Mass.; to name a few, have recruited students from abroad.  

If he visits the Katahdin region, Mattimore hopes to see how well-prepared Millinocket is to receive the 60 Chinese students who will be attending Stearns in September, and how prepared townspeople might be for them.

“Those are the kinds of things I would like to explore maybe a little,” Mattimore said. “What I would like to do is maybe talk to a couple of people and figure out whether my characterization maybe is unfair.”

Mattimore believes that he could write about his findings in China Daily Online, another massive Chinese publication that gets, he said, about 31 million page views daily. He writes a general interest editorial column for China Daily up to three times a week.

“Why would kids from China want to come over to Stearns High School? I think that’s a question that people at Stearns and Millinocket really have to answer if they are going to bring large numbers of kids over there to do more than look at Mt. Katahdin,” Mattimore said.

The town will be ready for it, Smith said. As part of his efforts, Smith will negotiate a lease at a town hotel where the students will stay, has established a junior ambassador program where town students would help welcome and guide the Chinese through the year, and have a special orientation day for the Chinese before school starts in the fall.

Smith already met informally with community and business leaders several times to encourage them to help make the newcomers feel at home, and plan more meetings.

“I am optimistic we are going to get a positive response,” he said. “I am completely confident in the community.”

Information from the Associated Press is included in this report.

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