MILLINOCKET, Maine — As a room mother at Granite Street School, Christine Cote deals frequently with Millinocket school staff and said she finds them friendly, professional and deeply committed to the welfare of their students, she said Thursday.

That’s why the Millinocket resident and school volunteer said she found the Maine Department of Education giving an F grade to Stearns High School unfair, inaccurate and damaging to school morale.

“Actually, I was very surprised because I didn’t think the way they did the grading was fair because they combined the math with the reading [scores] and I think they should have been completely separate,” Cote said Thursday. “Reading and math are obviously two totally different subjects.”

Gov. Paul LePage defended the new grading system the state has devised for ranking schools, which he sought, as a means to improve education in Maine.

“My mission is to make sure our education system gets the visibility that it needs to get throughout the state,” LePage said during a press conference on Wednesday. “I want the good schools to be rewarded and those that aren’t doing as well, to be able to help them. That’s really the agenda. This is not a Democrat, Republican or independent process. It’s for our kids. We need to put our kids first, at the front of the line. The only way that we can assure that happens is to look at ourselves and be critical of that performance if we’re not top-notch.”

Millinocket School Superintendent Kenneth Smith’s comment on Thursday echoed those of superintendents across the state the day before who blasted the grading system as overly simplistic, “myopic and senseless.”

Stearns is among six schools statewide that were dropped from the ranking within an hour after the grades were released to the public. Three had received Fs. The rest had been given Cs.

State education officials dropped the schools because their configurations had
changed during the years included in the assessment. Millinocket Middle School was closed in July 2012 and Stearns became a grade seven to 12 school instead of nine to 12, leaving the grades unreflective of the schools as they are now.

Smith said that it was particularly unfair to an area as economically depressed as the Katahdin region has been.

“And it is particularly unreliable when there are so many underfunded schools in the state,” Smith said Thursday. “In an area like this, we have had a very depressed economy for several years, so the schools have had to cut budgets repeatedly every year. I think many families struggle to keep their heads above water.”

All of this, he said, contributes greatly to students’ academic struggles.

“It’s a very crude way to try to compare school systems,” Smith said of the state DOE’s grades. “I could have told you the end result just by looking at where the schools are [socio-economically].”

“Self-actualization [such as the pursuit of education] is something people pursue when they have taken care of their basic needs,” Smith said.

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett had a sharp response Thursday to the argument that poverty adversely impacts a school’s grade.

“Overcoming poverty himself, Gov. LePage’s own personal story shows that income barriers do not define destiny,” Bennett said. “However, the Department of Education has data to back that up, as well. There are nearly two dozen schools with more than 50 percent of their students on free or reduced lunch that earned A’s and B’s.”

“Poverty does not equate to failure,” Bennett added, “and we hope these grades and the data website will lead to healthy conversations about how these high-poverty schools are achieving great results.”

Millinocket resident Kara Morris said she wanted to know more about how grades were assigned.

“My concern is that this area is still a work in progress. You want to draw people from other towns in and not push them out,” Morris said. “If you have a headline that just says that the school got an F, you have to really look at how they did it [assigned the grade] and see if they [state officials] did their homework.”

One of the ironies of the dispute over Stearns getting an F is that on the same day that Smith was dismissing the grading effort as meaningless, AOS 66 Superintendent Quenten Clark asked the crowd at an East Millinocket school board meeting for a round of applause for the system’s schools C grades.

He got his applause.

East Millinocket officials are considering a tuition offer from Millinocket that would send Schenck High and Opal Myrick Elementary schools to that town for two years.

East Millinocket resident John Green said he worried that LePage’s grading system was all too accurate. Northern Maine schools, he said, are failing at adequately preparing students for the real world.

“I think it’s a problem on a national scale,” Green said. “One of the biggest things we are running into is that schools are not preparing students for college.”

A U.S. Marine with four children and a degree in business administration who is studying child psychology at a local college, Green said that his review of East Millinocket school curricula show that “we are preparing them [students] for a mill [job] that doesn’t exist.”

“Everybody went from high school right down to the mill. They could get a good job, they could work for the union, they could make reasonably good money without a higher education,” Green said. “The mills are closing down. We are outsourcing jobs like that to China. The real market exists in the backyard that is millions of miles long. You can telecommute to Korea if you want to.”

“We have that technology, but we are not preparing kids for it,” he added. “We are preparing kids to be auto mechanics, farmers …We are heading towards a time where if you are not on the cutting edge, you are out, because everything is ‘fast’ and ‘now.’ We are not getting kids ready for fast and now. We are getting kids ready for ‘slow down.’

“You can’t slow down in this world.”

Information from BDN reporter Christopher Cousins is included in this report.