When Todd Finn, Lewiston’s new school superintendent, was moving into his apartment on Main Street with his wife and dogs, the delivery men welcomed him to “The Dirty Lew” and advised him to be careful where he walks his dogs.
Finn, a former U.S. Army paratrooper who started his job on July 1, said he was surprised to hear local people be so negative. The nickname refers to a number of things, depending on who is asked: Lewiston’s once-thriving downtown bar scene and the drugs and crime that came with it, dirt on the streets and tough residents.
“They were insulting their own city,” Finn said of the delivery guys.
Finn used the encounter as a teaching moment and decided to apply it to Lewiston’s schools, which he said lack direction, have low graduation rates, high absentee rates and low percentages of standardized test-taking.
“Before we can turn around the graduation rates and test scores, we need to turn around the mindset,” he said. “One way to do that with Lewiston and the schools is to turn the story around.”
An avid tweeter and believer in data to help inform decisions, Finn responded to Lewiston name-callers in a Sept. 20 tweet that said: “The derogatory nomenclature ‘The Dirty Lew’ is simply worn out and cliche. Those who say it don’t know us. Those who say it, and are us, are simply afraid of what is required of them to change that mindset. It’s easy to lose. Anyone can insult themselves. Winning is much harder.”
Finn is using his three-year contract as the timeframe to implement his plan to turn around the nine Lewiston schools, which have about 6,000 students and 600 teachers. He still is looking to fill at least 23 teaching positions.
One of his many goals is to boost the graduation rate from 74 percent, which is one of the worst in the state, to 90 percent by 2022.
Another is to increase the number of students taking the Maine Educational Assessment tests. Only two of Lewiston’s nine schools have met the Maine Department of Education requirement that 95 percent of students take the tests. He wants to increase that and monitor progress.
“This is an evidenced-based business,” he said. “The results we get are kids coming to school.” About 31 percent of the students are chronically absent, which means they miss 18 or more days. He wants to cut that in half by 2022.
Finn said Lewiston is ripe for change. This year he is collecting information across the school district on what actions are needed to improve it. Next year that information will be used to redesign the system for improved performance. The third year will implement those changes.
“We want to move from what ‘schools do to kids’ to ‘what schools do with kids,’” he said. “By the end of the third year, Lewiston will operate very differently. We can’t continue to protect a system that doesn’t work.
“Our job is not to maintain the status quo,” said Finn, who has turned around several poor-performing schools in Georgia and North Carolina.
Finn, a former principal in Vermont, covers his walls and his Twitter posts with affirmative sayings that also lay out his plans.
“How did the Oakland A’s get into the playoffs? They used data.” he wrote in an Oct. 2 tweet. He was referring to the Michael Lewis book, “Moneyball,” that helped the A’s use statistics to build a team at low cost.
Finn is using data to identify trends in attendance, test scores and other metrics.
With a mix of students, some of whom are traumatized, he recommends love. He said when he walks into a classroom he gives students a fist pump or a high five.
“We’re actually trying to save kids’ lives here,” he said. “We work with a lot of kids who have experienced a lot of trauma.”
An Oct. 11 tweet laid out his strategy for helping his students. Among his plans: “Feed their bodies. Feed their hopes, dreams, and imagination. It begins and ends with nourishment.”
Finn takes on unconventional approaches to help students, including trying to arrange schedules that work for them. Among the schools he helped turn around was West Bladen High School in North Carolina. In 2010 at the start of the school year, he sent a letter inviting students who had dropped out to finish their high school education. Close to 50 came back.
Outside the box
One of 10 children whose father was a mailman and mother a nurse in his birthplace of Massachusetts, Finn isn’t afraid to take on a challenge.
And he sees that challenge just about everywhere he turns in Lewiston.
He and his wife have been looking for a house in Lewiston lately, but it’s not only the lack of affordable housing that’s been discouraging to him.
“When you look at properties on realtor.com, you look at the rankings for the school district as well. Ours were D’s,” he said. “These are my kids and my schools and I want them to be B’s and A’s.”
Finn said low school marks in realty listings could keep people from moving to Lewiston and make it harder for businesses to attract employees.
The school district’s poor reputation also causes some families to move away.
Gabrielle Russell, an architect at Platz Associates in Auburn who has young children, moved from Lewiston to Auburn.
“The schools are better in Auburn,” she said.
“We need to work on the schools,” said Thomas Platz, a principal at Platz Associates, whose affiliate owns most of the Bates Mill Complex. “That’s why the city brought in Finn. We need to work on the statewide perception. People bypass Lewiston-Auburn.”