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by Colin Powell
With news coming last week that Deer Isle-Stonington High School could apply for federal grant money without firing Principal Todd West, Islanders set to work brainstorming ideas to improve secondary education at a meeting Monday, April 5.
Superintendent Bob Webster and West moderated this, the first of two planning meetings, and set the ground rules at the beginning. This was to be a brainstorming session. After hearing about where the school is and what the “transformational model” requires administrators and faculty to accomplish, the audience would have a chance to throw out possible new or improved programs to help accomplish those goals.
Webster opened the discussion noting that while the school was told recently that it could receive at least one year of funding without firing West, “we have to prove to [the Department of Education’s] satisfaction that improvements West and the faculty have been doing have provided a head-start on meeting the grant requirements.” To that end, West provided a three-column document outlining the four major imperatives of school improvement. The first column held goals required or suggested by the transformational model; the second held notes about current efforts at the high school to meet that goal; the third held West’s ideas for next steps.
Addressing a citizen concern, Webster explained that while funding could be pulled after the first year if the administration cannot prove they are on the right track to improvement, there is no threat of the money spent during that first year being taken back.
Noting the need not just for incremental improvement, but transformation, citizen Zach Rosenfield asked, “Are you prepared to discuss the possibility that West is not the transformational leader we’re looking for?” School Board Chairman Andrew Vaughn, speaking as a citizen, explained that he has worked in higher education for nearly 14 years, been in a lot of schools and been on lots of committees that reviewed schools. “In my opinion, Todd West is amongst the top 5 percent [of administrators] that I have seen. I think we have our transformational leader right here.”
Vaughn further noted that the state waiving the requirement to fire the principal was evidence that the Department of Education is already satisfied with some of the progress the school has made. That said, citizen Linda Nelson pointed out that while the school did receive the waiver, the point of the transformational model is to make drastic changes. “Is there a need to have a guy that can be the bad guy?” asked Nelson. Webster noted that the grant application could include plans to bring on a “grant manager” or secondary administrator for the high school just during the grant period.
During the brainstorming session, the audience of nearly 70 people discussed ways to achieve the four components of the transformational model: 1) Developing and increasing teacher and school leader effectiveness, 2) comprehensive instructional reform strategies, 3) increasing learning time and creating community-oriented schools, and 4) providing operational flexibility and sustained support.
Many of the required components under number one, West pointed out, are not currently legal under Maine law. These include incentive pay for educators and tying educator performance reviews to student performance. Webster noted that a legislative bill, LD 1799, will likely be passed this session to allow these efforts, but they would take a year to implement and would also have to be negotiated with the teacher association, delaying their implementation until at least the second year of the grant.
Some ideas proposed by the audience for increasing instructional effectiveness included creating a relationship with a “sister” school that is high-performing, maintaining a pool of high-quality substitutes, allowing teachers time for professional development without taking away instructional time from students, and doing a major curriculum overhaul.
Citizen Dennis Rollins said that in his experience at the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, part-time officers were always of low quality until the department increased the pay to actually be higher than the full-time officers. “Suddenly some of the part-timers were higher quality than some of the full-timers,” he explained. He said that while it does not make intuitive sense, being able to pay substitutes higher rates might bring in higher quality candidates.
On the subject of professional development, West noted that the school is working hard on an improved schedule for “professional learning communities,” or PLCs where teachers will have an hour and half each week to sit down with each other and discuss individual student issues, as well as general instructional issues. Still, he said the idea of partnering with another school is a good one. He also noted that the school board will be presented in May with a plan to address issues in the school’s curricula, which he acknowledged need work.
Ideas were also suggested to use the money to accelerate curriculum development, with time given to tie together the K-8 and 9-12 grade curricula. “If we don’t deal with both schools at the same time, then we aren’t dealing with the whole problem,” said School Board member Skip Greenlaw. Citizen Michaela Baldwin added that with two small schools, cross-pollination between the two is possible and should happen more than it does now by getting kids in different grades working together on a project.
Another citizen pointed out a successful program at the University of Maine with peer-support writing courses. Students in upper grades work with students in lower grades to improve writing, and in turn improve their own.
The next discussion was over increasing learning time and creating community-oriented schools. The most dramatic suggestion came from Baldwin who put forward the idea of changing the school day. “Why not pay attention to teenage bodies? Start school at 10 a.m., go until 6 p.m., have lunch at 1 p.m. and eat again at 4 p.m. You could split the school day into chunks so teachers are in at different times of the day.” She suggested that beyond being better suited to teenage sleep schedules, it would also radicalize the way people think about school and give kids in disadvantaged home situations more time in a structured, safe environment.
Noting that some community members simply do not think highly of school or education, Zach Rosenfield proposed looking at communities that are successful in creating an engaged population. West noted a program in Jackman, which he hopes to study more. Called a Leadership Team, the group comprises administrators, teachers, students, community business owners, municipal representatives, and county-wide program representatives in the MSAD 12 area who meet once a month to support student success and provide a model for how to be active contributing members in their community.
In terms of providing operational flexibility and sustained support, the group discussed the fact that while there are not enough teachers in any one subject area to have department heads, meeting as departments and formalizing communication with resources outside the school would be beneficial. Webster noted that the most persistent tug of war between the school government and the administration is on the budget.