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by Colin Powell
While the community had already begun discussing the school improvement grant the night before, the school board took official action, voting in favor of proceeding with the application at their regular meeting, Tuesday, April 6.
With five voting in favor and board member Don Sargent abstaining, the board gave the community a green light to continue working on the grant application in the wake of the school being placed on a “consistently low-performing” list by the state Department of Education.
In statements made before the vote, most board members said they were in support of applying for the grant. Chairman Andrew Vaughn noted that whatever people feel about the SAT as a means of student assessment, the community can not be satisfied with the scores, adding, “I think we can do better, and I think that we have the right person in charge,” referring to Principal Todd West.
Vaughn noted that the grant should be used to develop a comprehensive curriculum, along with the myriad changes, which the recently received accreditation report contained. Those, he said, should include improving the motivation of students and, in a subject he said is rarely discussed, drug and alcohol abuse in the community.
“I am very supportive of the grant, but I want to do it with respect to administrator and teacher time,” added Vaughn. “I hope the staff will understand that we want to give them resources to do the things we come up with. We will not just ask them to do all this work without the means to do this work.”
While Vaughn emphasized work needed in the high school, board member Mark Cormier said he would support the grant but wants to see work done in the elementary school as well. “As a parent, I feel that even though this money is mostly for the high school, the ball has really been dropped in the elementary school.” To that end, he suggested that while the money should go to make up for deficiencies in the current high school population, work should be done to align the K-12 curriculum so kids are prepared upon entering high school.
Cormier added, “While it’s difficult for me to say that when we’re spending $16,000 plus per kid that we need more funding, we may need more money to fix what’s been done.”
“I’m not for the grant, bottom line,” said lone dissenting board member Don Sargent. “I have to question attaching ourselves to something that could increase our tax base later on.” Sargent pointed out that under West’s leadership the school already had a plan in place to improve the school before the state put it on their list of under-performing schools. “I think the leadership at the top had issues, but they are being addressed,” said Sargent.
Sargent, who has a daughter in fourth grade, said he agreed with Cormier that many of the high school’s problems start in the elementary school, and that work needs to be done to improve K-8 student motivation. “I don’t agree with the idea of throwing money at [the problem] to fix it. I don’t think it’s a money issue. I think it’s an Island issue of culture and just the way things are.” He added that it has been great seeing the community coming out to try to fix this, but he does not want to get caught up in the government’s “shell game.”
“I think the accreditation report was a great reinforcement of what we’ve been doing and what we have to do,” said Sargent. He pointed out that the report’s findings closely mirrored the school’s acknowledged problems, and shows that the high school knows where the problems are and is on the way towards fixing them.
Board member Skip Greenlaw said he would vote for the grant, but expressed concern that the application not ask for more than what the school can actually accomplish. “We have spent a lot of money on math and reading curricula over the past few years, and I just don’t get a sense that the math curriculum is effective in the elementary school. I hope that the grant will allow us to write a K-12 curriculum; otherwise we’ll only be doing a patchwork job to placate the state.”
Superintendent Bob Webster recommended the board approve applying for the grant. West, while recommending moving forward with the grant application, also pointed out that there are many things that can be implemented with little extra money. Curriculum development, he said, has been in the works since October and a plan is about to be presented at the board’s May 4 meeting to address that. In addition, he noted that it is always possible that the school will not receive the grant. Given that possibility, he said it is important to understand that while improvement may happen faster with grant money, “school improvement is still going to happen.”
Citizen Marnie Reed-Crowell likened the grant money to a harbor pilot. “Big ships have captains, but when you get to a difficult passage, you take on a harbor pilot.” She noted that the idea of an additional administrator to work with the school to implement the plan is a good one, and there need be no reason to expect the position to continue beyond the grant period. “When it’s over, you say ‘now we’re steering in good shape, we’ll cruise along happily,’” said Reed-Crowell.
Citizen Mickey Flores introduced herself as a retired educator of 25 years from New York State. She said that in 2004 she was awarded an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator grant and spent a year working on educational policy in Washington, D.C., and actually had a hand in developing some of the policy the Obama Administration is currently using to improve schools. She suggested the board “take the money and run, but not like you are stealing it, but like you are running a relay race, passing the money from the federal government to Maine and finally to the community. If we don’t take it, it’s not going back to the taxpayers, just to other schools in the state.”
Linda Nelson also reassured the board that a friend of hers who works in the U.S. Department of Education has told her of successful examples of radical changes in schools using soft money. She said changes are reflected in data in year one, but the real results happen in years two and three. “If we have the right leadership in place and the right money, I feel really optimistic as well.”
Work on the grant planning process will continue on Wednesday, April 14, at 6 p.m. in the high school cafeteria.