KENNEBUNK, Maine — Several parents spoke out about standardized testing and said they feel the district did not adequately communicate to parents about their right to opt their child out of the Smarter Balance Assessment during this week’s Regional School Unit 21 board of directors meeting in Kennebunk.
Assistant Superintendent Katie Hawes sent a letter to parents describing the new Smarter Balance Assessment, which is part of the implementation of Common Core. But parents who spoke at Monday’s meeting, including Lisa Kendrick who has two children at Kennebunk Elementary School and one at Sea Road School, said the letter was inadequate and did not provide enough information.
“How many parents know that they have the right to opt out?” Kendrick asked.
The letter sent to parents from Hawes says, “if you have any questions about the new [Maine Educational Assessment], please do not hesitate to communicate with your child’s principal or me.” It does not tell parents they have the option to opt their child out of the test. This is the first year the ability to opt out has been available, according to Hawes.
Kendrick cited letters to parents from the Wells-Ogunquit School District and Cape Elizabeth that spelled out the choice to opt out and provided detailed information about the tests.
Joy Conant, who has a son at the Middle School of the Kennebunks, said parents only found out about the choice to opt their children out of the testing through conversations with other parents.
“It appears and feels to parents that information is being withheld. Parents want to make the best decision for their child, not necessarily for the district. Sometimes it’s an individual decision for the child,” Conant said.
According to Hawes, all public schools in Maine are required to administer state-wide testing as a requirement of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Additionally, each school in the district is required to have a 95 percent participation rate or they will be listed as a “failing school.” Hawes said that during a conversation she had with an official at the state Department of Education that official said RSU 21’s letter went “above and beyond.” Hawes said they’re not even required to send a letter about the testing.
“You said you don’t need to, but I would think you would want to, to keep that transparency,” Lana Wescott, mother of a KES second-grader, said.
Wescott also spoke about her concerns with the Common Core standards.
“I’m here to find out more about how Common Core got into our system and how we get it out. States that are opting out are setting a precedence,” Wescott said.
She said there are times her second-grader brings homework home, and she can’t do it — and neither can other parents she talks with.
“I’m a college graduate, and it’s concerning that I can’t do the work. It’s very flawed,” she said. “Seeing my very bright, school-loving second-grader in tears and ripping up his homework is pretty upsetting. I’m here to open up the conversation.”
Board members Frank Drigotas and Jeff Cole asked Chairwoman Maureen King if the board could take time to discuss Hawes’ letter at Monday’s meeting. King said the agenda was “jammed” and board members had not had adequate time to make a decision on the topic.
Cole said the board policy stated they “may not act on public input made during a meeting, not that we shall not.”
“We have a compelling subject matter here with people who came here tonight, and it’s a timely subject,” Cole said. “The manner in which we have conveyed this information may not comport with our duty as a board,” he said.
King ultimately approved the last 10 minutes of the board meeting to begin a discussion on the matter prior to the budget public forum, which began at 7 p.m.
Hawes said the district has to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and the 95 percent participation in the standardized testing is part of that. She said the state’s waiver to be exempt from No Child Left Behind recently was denied by the federal government because of changes needed in teacher and principal evaluations, and it is still being worked on at the state level.
In information provided by the district, it states RSU 21 receives about $400,000 in federal No Child Left Behind funding each year. The funding could be at risk if the district did not meet the participation requirements.
Board member Mike Mosher said he understands parents concerns and the financial implications but that the district has an obligation to meet the needs parents and students.
“I don’t think the financial concerns can make us not do the right thing,” he said.
King said the Policies Committee is scheduled to review the testing notification letter at it’s next meeting on April 15. It will be on the agenda for the April 27 meeting of the full RSU board.
Assistant superintendent appointment
In other business, the board approved the hiring of Dr. Phil Potenziano as the district’s new assistant superintendent. Potenziano will take over for Hawes, who will take over as superintendent in July.
Hawes said she feels Potenziano will be a “wonderful match for the district.”
Potenziano said he’s excited and humbled by the opportunity to work in a district that has been on the cutting edge of instructional practices and is grateful for the unanimous vote of support from the board Monday.
“RSU 21 is considered one of the more innovative student-centered districts within Maine,” Potenziano said.
Key challenges facing Potenziano in his new role include overseeing the building renovation project if it passes on June 9, continuing the development of district-wide proficiency-based learning and piloting a new Teacher and Administrator evaluation system. Potenziano also will be on board as the district enters the last year of the five-year strategic plan and will work with administrators on a new plan.
Potenziano has a doctoral degree from Boston College’s Lynch School of Education, where he said he was able to collaborate with educational leaders from around New England and develop his own personal leadership style while gaining insight into what is needed of today’s district level leaders. He plans to work with Hawes to develop a system to meet with as many students, staff, parents and community members as possible to learn the culture of RSU 21.
“I want to make myself available to anyone, and I try to do this by being out and about in the schools as much as possible,” Potenziano said.
Potenziano comes to RSU 21 from RSU 14, or Windham/Raymond, where he has been the Director of Special Services for 14 years. He lives in North Yarmouth with his wife, Karen, and their three children. Potenziano will start with RSU 21 on July 1.