HOULTON, Maine — Heeding the advice of more than 120 taxpayers unhappy with their school being named one of the lowest achieving in the state, the SAD 29 board of directors has voted not to accept federal improvement dollars that come with the label.
At the same time, teachers, administrators and school board members attending a public hearing Monday night acknowledged that the school “can do better,” adding that they would keep working to help students improve.
Two weeks ago, the state Department of Education released a list of the 10 “persistently lowest-achieving schools.” Schools included on the list became eligible for a total of $12 million in federal school improvement grants, provided they plan to take certain steps. Schools are not required to accept the money.
Houlton Junior-Senior High School was on the list.
The state Department of Education used federal criteria to produce the list, namely low levels of achievement in math and reading over a three-year period, coupled with a low level of improvement.
The identified schools were listed in two categories. Tier 1 schools such as Houlton High are those that receive Title 1 funding — which is reserved for areas with low-income families — but have not made progress for two or more years according to the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Tier 2 schools are high schools that are eligible for Title 1 funds but whose districts use those funds in other schools. Five schools from each tier were placed on the list.
Schools that take the money must adopt one of four aggressive plans for improvement:
• The “Turnaround Model,” in which a school must replace its principal and at least half its staff.
• The “Restart Model,” in which a school must close and reopen as a charter school.
• The “School Closure Model,” in which a school must close and move students elsewhere.
• The “Transformational Model,” in which a district must replace principals who have been at a school more than two years, must train teachers and administrators, implement various reforms, extend learning and planning time, and adjust other operating procedures.
Officials in Houlton, including teachers, administrators and community members, have spoken out against the ranking, saying the school has been unfairly targeted. During Monday night’s public hearing, the majority of the speakers urged the school to turn down the grant money and they railed against the designation that Houlton Junior-Senior High School was a “failing school.”
Superintendent Steve Fitzpatrick advised the school board to reject the money. He said that if the district accepted the federal money, the school would have to continue funding the new educational model after the grant dried up. He added that he was “proud” to be superintendent in the school district, saying that the high school is an accredited school that has a talented student body and staff. School officials pointed out on Monday evening that in this past year Houlton High scored 65th of 127 high schools in the state as measured by the Scholastic Aptitude Tests used by Maine as the high school assessment. They also pointed out that many schools that did worse than Houlton students did on the SATs were not labeled “persistently lowest achieving” schools. Officials also said that 70 to 80 percent of Houlton High graduates go on to pursue a postsecondary education.
Speaking on behalf of the high school staff, Joseph Fagnant, a music teacher at the school, said that the staff reacted with “disbelief, shock, and anger” upon hearing news of the ranking. He said the school was told a month ago that it was on track to making Adequate Yearly Progress, as defined under No Child Left Behind.“The next month, we are told we’re a failing school,” he said.
The label has hurt the staff, students and community, he added, before urging the school board to “say ‘No, thank you’ to the state and let them know we won’t accept the label of a failing school.”
Marina DiMarco, a junior at Houlton High School, said that she and her fellow students disagreed with the state’s designation.
“I think this money should go to the schools that need it more, the ones that are struggling to even get accredited,” she said on Monday evening.
Several other students also said they did not want the school board to accept the grant money.
Ben Drew, a Houlton resident, talked about the fact that the school garnered the label due in part to a snapshot of its reading and math test scores. He pointed out that some students simply “do not test well.”
“You can’t give someone a piece of paper and a pencil and determine their intelligence,” he said.
In a previous interview with the Bangor Daily News, Marty Bouchard, the high school’s principal since 2004, said, “I find it hard to imagine the state wouldn’t use numerous sets of data or assessments to truly identify the lowest-performing schools.”
Bouchard also pointed out that the fact that only 12 high schools in the state used Title I funds played a role in Houlton’s selection as one of the five Tier I schools on the list.
Despite the criticisms directed at the state, some folks attending Monday’s public hearing wondered why Houlton students were not doing better on the SATs, saying they believed the school could do better than 65th out of 127 high schools in the state.
Richard Rhoda, a Houlton resident, said he was proud of the school and its accomplishments, but also wanted to see the scores improve.
“This has to be a wake-up call to the school board that as a taxpayer, I expect more for my tax dollars,” he said. “The school needs to do better.”
Another Houlton resident, who spoke after the meeting and did not want to give her name, agreed with Rhoda’s statements. The woman, who has two children in the district’s middle school, said she was frustrated that the school did not accept the money.
“I really wanted to speak during the meeting, but I was afraid I’d get the ‘evil eye,’” she said. “To me, that wasn’t a meeting, it was a pep rally. It started out that way from the first speaker.
“Everyone was pointing out all of these great things about the school and blasting the Department of Education. A number of people pointed out that the school has great athletic teams and a great music department, but what does that have to do with academics?”
The resident also said that several school officials talked about the school finishing 65th out of 127 high schools in the state as measured by the SATs.
“It is just my opinion, but to me, that just isn’t good enough,” she said. “If my child said that she finished 65th out of 127, I would want to know why she didn’t do better. I would want her to do better. Tonight, I heard everything about how great the school is and nothing about how the students are going to be helped to do better on these tests. I heard statements that it would happen, but I didn’t hear how. This is not a rich district. How are they going to make improvements without money?”
Others wished for more time to consider options around the federal funding. Schools must file a letter of intent to apply for the federal funding by April 2, followed by a full application by May 7.
David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said Tuesday that Houlton is the only school so far that has turned down the money. He said the state did not have to get a set number of schools to agree to take the federal money in order to qualify for the program.
Connerty-Marin emphasized that the state never has said that the 10 schools are the worst schools in the state, and that they know that there are other schools that are lower performing in the state.
“This funding is a tool for schools, and that is what schools need to look at,” he said. “They need to ask ‘Will this benefit student achievement?’ That is what this money is for, to help students better achieve, and I think that is what we all want to see.”