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by Colin Powell
After months of back and forth with the Maine Department of Education, the administrators at Deer Isle-Stonington High School were recently asked to withdraw their application for a school improvement grant. Superintendent Bob Webster told the school board at its September 8 meeting that while no one has actually said it, the likely reason is that the school maintains teachers that are not considered “highly qualified teachers” according to federal law, which governs the source of the grant money, the Title 1 program.
“I think it’s unconscionable that they cannot work with us,” said Webster, noting that he sent the DoE a plan that would bring all staff members at the high school up to the federal standard by the end of the year. Effectively, this would mean making sure all teachers had teaching degrees from an accredited college or university. In a previous meeting, Principal Todd West explained that some of the school’s best teachers just happen to not meet the HQT standard because they came to education from a different background.
Discussing options, Webster said he would rather the school board not vote to withdraw the application, which he said was asked of him by a DoE official in an informal conversation only. Rather, he would like the board to take no action and force the department to reject the application. This, he said, would at least give them a chance to appeal the decision.
“It’s completely unfair,” added Webster. “Tier II schools do not have to have all their staff HQT. It just makes no sense.”
Asked about how other Tier I schools eligible for the school improvement grant fared, school board member Walter Kumiega pointed out that, besides Sumner High School, the only other Tier I schools on the eligible list were elementary schools in Portland and Lewiston. The greater population surrounding those schools likely allows them to only hire HQT, explained Kumiega. “Just as a matter of narrowing down, they throw out all the non-HQT applicants,” he added.
Sumner High School Principal Tom Wissink said in a recent phone interview that his school did receive school improvement grant money, but he could not speak to whether or not the school had any non-HQ teachers. DIS elementary school Principal Mike Benjamin, who formerly taught at Sumner, noted that, when he was there, Sumner did have at least one non-HQ teacher.
While school board vice-chairman Skip Greenlaw guessed the education department likely got less money than expected from the state and was looking for ways to shrink the pool of recipients, Webster suggested that the reason for the state’s attitude was ignorance rather than malice.
“I think the people implementing [the school improvement grant] did it in a hurry and were in over their heads as far as how to implement a grant process of this size,” said Webster. West agreed, noting that the DoE was “clearly not aware of everything they needed to do for the [federal government] when they set the due date for applications.”