After deciding in March to proceed with applying for the school improvement grant for the Deer Isle-Stonington High School as a result of being listed as a persistently low-achieving school, the CSD 13 school board showed signs of dissent after being asked by Superintendent Bob Webster to approve a document pledging “operational flexibility.”
Of five bullet points in the short document, the sticking point for board Vice-Chairman Skip Greenlaw is committing the board to provide financial support beyond the grant’s three year period for any grant activities the board chooses to support. “One legislative body cannot commit another legislative body to do something in the future,” he stated at the board’s April 26 meeting. “The next school board has every right to change things in the future.”
Beyond the operational flexibility document, Greenlaw also added that he is growing increasingly less comfortable with some parts of the proposed grant, specifically paying bonuses to teachers whose students test well. As a seafood distributor, Greenlaw pointed out, “I don’t get any credit for bringing fresh seafood; that’s what’s expected of me,” alluding to the job for which teachers are hired.
High school Principal Todd West, listening to Greenlaw’s statements, said the board should be very thoughtful about the grant going forward. “We’re asking a lot from the people in [the high school]. To submit [the grant application] and not really commit to three years would be hard on them.”
Greenlaw said a caveat ought to accompany the grant that a change in school governance could alter the board’s ability to support the proposals it contains.
“That’s the problem with these grants,” said board member Don Sargent. “Local control is undermined by what this grant asks of us.”
Discussing the complexities of the grant’s requests, such as extending the school day, West admitted that his biggest concern is that the school is being asked to substantially reorganize the school in only two months. Greenlaw agreed. “I just don’t want this thing to come crashing down on Todd [West]’s head,” he stated. He said a big part of that is that many parents who will be affected by changes made by accepting the grant will not come to meetings.
West said he has spent a lot of time thinking about the grant and said he has a major concern about the school’s ability to do what the grant asks, especially with regard to work already done to improve the school. “I question whether we can do it, or whether we’ll burn out students, teachers, administrators, and not have any really lasting changes,” he said.
West pointed out that nationally, many of the “turn-around principals” lauded in Chicago for affecting change in inner-city schools have moved on to superintendent positions elsewhere, and the schools have slid back. “I’m roughly 50/50 on [the grant] right now,” said West.
Adult Education Teacher Mike Wood also pointed out, “Even if we do all this, the standards we are measured by are not the standards we have chosen. No matter what we do we will still be measured by the SAT, which I feel is a flawed test.”
Sargent proposed the idea of coming up with a plan that would incorporate much of what the grant requires, but do it using island resources and on the island’s time. “This [grant] is trying to mandate us to do work we were already doing at a scale we are not capable of,” said Sargent, pointing out that the recent accreditation report showed that board and administration already know where the school needs to improve. “The leadership is in place, the teachers are all here and on board,” he added.
By the end of the discussion, the board agreed that the application must still be submitted. Webster told the board that his feeling is that the state may not even provide full funding if the grant is awarded. Rather, they may suggest one or two elements be implemented and provide partial funding, which would scale back what the school is asked to do.