PORTLAND, Maine — The lack of funding for public schools, the cost of higher education and a dysfunctional program for English language learners were some of the problems more than 50 students, representing 13 schools from Dexter to Scarborough, tackled Saturday at the Portland Public Library.
The event consisted of student-led presentations and discussions about how to improve Maine’s education system. It was sponsored by Seeds of Peace, a program that attempts to alleviate intercommunal tensions in Maine by bringing together immigrant, refugee and American-born students from high schools across the state for a two-week-long summer camp and other events throughout the year.
Students shared experiences of being stigmatized in school because they have learning disabilities or are not American-born. After each presentation, they met in small groups to discuss possible solutions to these problems.
“I was born in Georgia, raised in Maine,” Muna Mohamed, a junior at Lewiston High School, told an audience of about 80 people. “Up until sixth grade, I was considered not proficient in English when it was the only language I have ever spoken fluently. How does that work?”
The students heard statements from lawmakers, including U.S. Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins and U.S. Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree, as well as a rousing speech from gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler, but the real goal of the conference was for these students to educate their political leaders.
Next fall, the Seeds of Peace students will present the governor, leaders of the Legislature and Maine’s congressional delegation with a document outlining what they perceive to be the biggest issues facing the state’s education system and proposed solutions. This document will update a similar proposal created by Seeds of Peace students in 2003 in response to Gov. John Baldacci’s call for a charter to examine “why young people are leaving our state.”
This year, the students identified and focused on four topics: the economics of education, universal standards, students with disabilities and English language learner programs.
“It’s super relevant to us,” said Meredith Roderka, a senior at Dexter Regional High School. “We’re the ones it’s affecting — us and the teachers.”
Four students opened a discussion on the economics of education with a presentation that painted a dire picture of the cost of education from kindergarten to college.
“Seven out of every 10 students here will be an average of $29,400 in debt” after graduating from college, said Sophie Warren, a senior at Catherine McAuley High School in Portland.
Jared Dumas said that though the city of Lewiston, where he goes to school, allocates 40 percent of its expenditures for education, money is still in short supply in that school district.
Cutler continued the economics discussion with a speech that received a standing ovation from the students.
“Here’s our problem in Maine: we’re old and cold and poor,” he said.
“If we want to get younger,” he went on, “the first thing we’re going to have to do is get smarter about immigrants … we need policies to get more immigrants to come to Maine.”
He added that the cost of higher education, which he said is increasing faster than the cost of health care, is keeping Maine students from achieving a degree after high school.
Cutler’s presence at the event was significant to the students.
“I think it’s important for kids to hear people like Eliot Cutler speak and know that there are important people looking at this and scrutinizing it,” Roderka said, referring to the document that will be finished in the fall.
The conversation later shifted to standards-based education, a form of teaching and grading that all Maine high schools will be required to use in the 2014-2015 school year. The model calls on students to master a set of skills in order to graduate from high school, and moves emphasis away from a traditional model of letter grades and credits.
After another student presentation, the audience grilled a panel of educators that included Portland Public Schools Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk, Casco Bay High School principal Derek Pierce and Dexter Regional High School teacher Lisa Cronin, all of whom have had varying degrees of experience with standards-based education.
The students wanted to know:
— What happens if a student doesn’t meet the standard?
— How will standards-based education affect students with disabilities?
— Doesn’t standards-based education benefit self-motivated students and leave behind everyone else?
“We’re all living in a flawed system and I don’t see much harm in trying to move to a better system,” said Pierce, whose school has been using a standards-based system since it was founded in 2005.
Each of the student participants at Saturday’s event had attended the summer camp at Seeds of Peace or will attend this year. Students that show strong leadership skills are selected by their teachers to apply to the program. Their applications are evaluated by Tim Wilson, the program’s director, and administrators in the Seeds of Peace central office in New York, before they are invited to camp.
“This is not typical of a lot of things that go on in Maine,” said Wilson. “It’s their dialogue. We put parameters on it, but it’s their dialogue.”