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by Colin Powell
“If there’s no flexibility, then we’re out of luck,” Superintendent Bob Webster told more than 100 people gathered at in the Deer Isle-Stonington High School cafeteria. “Because there ain’t no way in hell I will recommend to the school board that they fire [Principal Todd] West.”
The large crowd gathered on Tuesday, March 23, to discuss options for receiving federal funds after the state put the school on a “consistently low-performing” list last week. While the discussion became heated at times, most of the evening focused on administrators West and Webster explaining how this came to happen and responding to questions about what they plan to do about it.
In a recent faculty meeting, Webster said the whole school knows what needs to happen. “We know we need to get better and we want to be open to all ideas from the community as potential pathways to making the needed improvements,” said Webster. After West outlined the state’s use of the SAT test plus a “science augmentation” as its assessment for whether a high school student is meeting state curriculum standards, Webster stepped up again and made an impassioned argument as to why the results should be taken with a grain of salt.
“I was not born into a family of middle class parents. I grew up on a diary farm, and my father would have loved for me to take over the farm instead of taking the SATs and going on to college,” said Webster. “It has been implied in a recent letter [to the editor of Island Ad-Vantages] that we are blaming fishing families for being on this list. I think the choice of the SAT [by the state] was disrespectful to schools that have resource-based economies. We want to encourage students to go as far beyond secondary education as they can, but you should respect the wishes of the students and their families. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the kids who have graduated from DISHS, and those that have not, and gone to work in our resource-based economy.”
Webster added, “We are not trying to get off the list, but it should be clear to everybody who’s interested that DISHS is neither a bad, nor the worst high school in this state.” He also noted that he has filed a freedom of information request with the state to see the data behind their numbers but has not yet heard back. West presented a list showing DISHS 17th on a list of all lowest performing high schools, as opposed to the state list, which was limited to schools with at least 40 students in the junior class taking the SAT.
The point of the meeting, however, was to talk about the improvement grant that the state will give DISHS if the district meets one of four criteria. Two of the four are currently illegal in Maine, and involve closing and then reopening the school as a charter school or firing the principal and 50 percent of the staff. A third option would close the school and pay tuition for all students to attend another high school. The last and, according to Webster, only reasonable option is the “transformation model,” which, while requiring firing a principal who has been there for more than two years, otherwise looks very similar to a plan West has been working to implement over the past two-and-a-half years. The school board will meet Tuesday, April 6, to discuss going ahead with this option, which would mean receiving a portion of the $12 million federal grant.
West noted a number of positive trends in the high school, including a 65-percent drop in suspensions over the past two years. The school also only had one ninth grader fail one class in the 2009 fall semester. “Compare that to the past, when we might have had 10 students failing 40 classes, and we’re making progress,” said West.
Still, Deer Isle resident Linda Nelson asked West that if the SATs are not a good assessment, what does the school propose to use so the community can see improvement in the core academic areas of literacy and math. West noted that a new assessment, which tests students during the school year and provides near-instant feedback to teachers, is being used to help catch literacy problems. “But in the state of Maine, we do not have assessment that all kids take seriously,” he said, again pointing out the problem with using a college entrance exam to assess all high school students.
To fill in the gap, West said the school has put a lot of energy into developing a five-strategy improvement plan with the stated goals of having at least 95 percent of the freshman class graduate with a diploma or GED within four years, and have every graduate demonstrate proficiency in schoolwide academic expectations. Asked about the most important step to improve the school, Webster said that would likely be professional learning communities. Discussed over the past three months by the school board, PLCs give teachers dedicated time in their weekly schedule to talk about what has worked and what has not, including issues involving specific students and their difficulties with certain lessons.
A person in the audience also brought up the fact that the school’s recent accreditation report indicated a need to update school curricula. “We are more than willing to discuss the need to update the curriculum,” said West. “We are not unaware of what we struggle with,” he added. In fact, he noted that nearly all 56 deficiencies noted in the accreditation report had already been identified by DISHS as places that need improvement. Reading a portion of the accreditation visiting team’s report, he also added, “The report does not describe a persistently underachieving school.”
School board member Mark Cormier noted that the lack of a consistent curriculum, not just in the high school, but K-12, stands out. “We’re seeing gaps that have snowballed,” explained Cormier.
Fellow board member Skip Greenlaw added that the board is taking the need to unify the K-12 curriculum seriously, and West is working on a plan to do just that. He also noted that the move toward PLCs should make a huge difference in both Island schools. “We’re finally coming to a position where we can acknowledge that teachers cannot know what every kid in their classroom needs to be able to learn.” He described the state’s designation as a potential bellwether for the community to take active steps to improve the education the island provides.
“We took a big chance on West,” said Greenlaw, explaining that West had never held a principal position before this. “He told us in the hiring process that he wanted to make this the best high school in the state.” He argued that the state assessment problem will have to be solved on the state level, and that the SAT simply does not work. But in the meantime, the community needs to pick up the slack for kids who may not have the same advantages that others do.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Webster invited any community member interested in participating in the grant writing process to contact him at the Union 76 office, 359-8400, or stop in at the high school.