July 23, 2018
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4 lessons from a look at the pressing challenges facing Maine’s schools

Darren Fishell | BDN
Darren Fishell | BDN
Students board the bus after school at Milbridge Elementary School on Nov. 30, 2017.
By Matthew Stone, BDN Staff

Maine’s schools are shrinking, their academic performance hasn’t improved substantially in years even as it has in other states, and an achievement gap persists between low-income students and their higher-income peers.

There are pressing challenges in Maine’s education system: Schools are educating an increasingly low-income student body, many rural schools that have seen their enrollment drop over the years are struggling to pay for a decent education for the students who remain, and Maine schools often have trouble recruiting strong school leaders who can guide their improvement.

The BDN’s Maine Focus team recently dove into these trends, examining what is holding back Maine students from realizing their full potential and holding up examples of promising efforts to address many of these challenges head on.

Here are some takeaways from the series that resulted, called Your School.

Direct funding to low-income schools, and spend the money on proven strategies. Family income is a persistent, dividing line in education.

Students who come from low-income families tend to start school already lagging their higher-income peers, and the gap in academic achievement continues throughout school. Later on, lower-income students are less likely to graduate from high school, enroll in college and stay enrolled, and ultimately graduate with a post-secondary degree.

While researchers and policymakers have debated for years whether more money will fix public education in the U.S., a growing body of recent research has shown that targeting more money to low-income students makes a difference, helping to close those stubborn achievement gaps and improving the outlook for poor students later in life.

Over the years, Maine’s school funding policies have tended to provide roughly equal treatment for all students, whether wealthy or poor. But because low-income students and their higher-income peers have different starting points, equal treatment doesn’t mean all students have an equal shot at meeting the state’s academic expectations. What recent school spending studies suggest is that Maine could level the playing field by actually spending more on its poorer students than others — especially if the extra money goes toward proven strategies to help low-income students.

Policymakers in Maine took a number of steps in that direction last year as part of the two-year state budget that took effect last July. They allocated more money for low-income students in the school funding formula, and the state will require that schools spend part of the sum on extended learning programs, such as tutoring and after-school programs, specifically to help low-income students.

The debate over school funding is a debate that won’t go away. As it continues, policymakers might consider allocating more resources to districts with high numbers of low-income students, and ensuring that schools spend the money specifically for those students’ benefit — not simply as an addition to the general budget.

Erin Rhoda | BDN
Erin Rhoda | BDN
Miles Lane School Principal Christina Ellis talks with second graders, including Jaden Atherton, 7, of Bucksport, in profile, before they leave for a field trip to Acadia National Park on Oct. 27, 2017.

Cultivate strong school leaders. Principals are second only to teachers in terms of how much they can influence students’ school performance, particularly for those students living in poverty. Yet principals are largely overlooked for their ability to improve student achievement. And Maine schools have found it difficult to retain principals long enough for their work to matter.

Maine doesn’t have a shortage of people qualified to work as principals. It’s that those with the credentials aren’t stepping up to apply for the open positions. Those who are applying tend to have less experience. And once they’ve started, about half of Maine principals leave before they’ve put in five years — which is the average amount of time it takes for a school leader to fully apply new practices to improve staff and student performance.

Given the high stakes for student learning, the leadership challenge is one that schools can’t ignore. But the landscape in Maine for cultivating new school leaders and supporting those who are already in leadership positions is a fractured one.

There’s no requirement in Maine that new principals have mentors they can approach with questions about the job or with whom they can work through challenging situations. The state is moving toward such a requirement for new teachers but has resisted such a move for principals.

As for concerted efforts to cultivate future leaders, they vary from district to district — and capacity is limited in smaller districts. The Bangor School Department began its Bangor Educational Leadership Academy in the fall of 2016. The academy allows participating staff members to take the coursework needed to earn school leadership credentials through the University of Maine. The participants also receive mentoring from current administrators, and they’re required to conduct their own research and propose solutions to ongoing school department challenges.

Similar to legislation requiring mentoring for principals and assistant principals, legislative efforts in recent years to help school districts create regional leadership academies have succumbed to vetoes from Gov. Paul LePage.

Darren Fishell | BDN
Darren Fishell | BDN
Milbridge Elementary School teacher Don Parker guides Jason Burgess through an assignment. Parker also coaches the school's girls' basketball team.

To improve, focus on more than academics. About the same share of high school graduates from Aroostook County continue their education as in more prosperous Cumberland County. There’s no set recipe for success in The County, but it isn’t strictly because of academic instruction in the classroom.

Schools in much of Maine have been stepping up increasingly in recent years to meet students’ non-academic needs, expanding the role of school as we know it so students who might be coming to school hungry, tired or distracted by turbulent family lives can address those distractions and learn.

In Skowhegan, for example, schools began providing breakfast and lunch for free to all students in 2014. A number of schools have set up in-school food pantries and repositories of winter clothing for students whose families can’t afford it.

At three Aroostook County high schools highlighted by the BDN, students, teachers and school officials attribute student success in part to the sort of community support that can only be found in a small, tight-knit town. “I think community members have a great sense of pride in the school, and it trickles down to the staff, and it trickles down to the students,” said Paul Sutherland, a math teacher at Easton Junior Senior High School.

In Portland schools, teachers and administrators are finding some success — particularly in addressing student behavior issues — through concerted efforts to involve parents in key decisions about their children’s education and the school district’s direction.

And in Washington County, three elementary schools are taking on an ambitious project that’s all about addressing whatever non-academic baggage students bring to school so they can focus on learning.

The nonprofit Cobscook Community Learning Center in Trescott has raised money to pay for in-school mental health counselors for students and training for teachers so they’re equipped to deal with challenges in their students’ lives that interfere with academics.

The nonprofit and the participating schools — Milbridge, Jonesport and Charlotte elementary schools — are hoping to make Down East Maine a rural proving ground for methods of addressing trauma and stress that can alter a child’s brain chemistry and hinder learning. Their approach is based on decades-old research into the toll adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) — such as having a parent in prison, growing up in a household without enough food or surviving sexual abuse — take on health and brain development.

Their work could set an example for other Maine schools as they try to ensure that students who come from difficult backgrounds can overcome those troubling past experiences and learn.

Matthew Stone | BDN
Matthew Stone | BDN
Anthony Liberatore spends time with his parents, Joanna and Anthony Liberatore, at their Hampden home on Nov. 3, 2017.

Address youngsters’ disabilities early. The cost of special education represents a growing portion of Maine school budgets, and there’s evidence to suggest fewer children would require special education services if they had ready access to services early in life to address learning disabilities, autism or other special needs.

But a continual state of political flux for more than a decade has reduced the budget for those early services, caused children to go without services to which they’re entitled under federal law, forced other children to wait longer for services than they legally should have to, and caused Maine’s performance to fall behind that of other states in helping young children with disabilities at a time in their lives when those services can make the biggest difference.

Between 2005 and 2015, the number of Maine children helped by Child Development Services — the state system that helps children with special educational needs before they begin kindergarten — fell more than 20 percent, while the state’s population of children in that age group (birth through age 5) fell only 9 percent.

Meanwhile, the number of U.S. children younger than 6 receiving special services rose nearly 13 percent in that time, compared with population growth for that age group of just 0.5 percent.

Last year, the LePage’s administration proposed shifting Child Development Services’ responsibilities for 3-, 4- and 5-year-old children to local school districts. The administration expects to introduce legislation this year to make the shift but hasn’t yet presented a bill to lawmakers. A committee recently ironed out recommendations for that legislation.

The committee’s top recommendation? Provide sufficient funding for special education services for preschool-age children.

Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Do you have an issue of major importance you’d like to see covered? Let us know at mainefocus@bangordailynews.com.

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