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A Two-part look at the LePage Administration's School Letter Grading System
05/20/2013   Reported By: Jay Field
Donna Lisnik, PIHS Principal

Most of the schools that got As and Bs under the LePage adminstration's new grading system are in more affluent Maine communities. Schools in poorer areas got a majority of the Ds and Fs. Decades of research confirms a link between parents' socioeconomic status and their childrens' academic performance. But don't tell Steve Bowen, Maine's education chief, that the new grading system is unfair.

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"One of the things the grading system showed us is that you do have schools in areas with high levels of poverty that have high levels of achievement," Bowen said.

So what's the formula for a high performing school? In the first of a two-part report, Jay Field traveled to Aroostook County to a school where about half the kids qualify for free or reduced lunch under federal poverty guidelines.

Presque Isle High School, in MSAD 1, was one of 20 high schools that got Bs on their state report card. Another 10 got As. Most of the top performing high schools are down south in coastal communities.

"Those systems - there several of those systems about our size in the coastal area of Portland - outspend us by $4,000 and $5,000 per student," said MSAD 1 Superintendent Gehrig Johnson. At the same time, Johnson noted, enrollment in the district has been falling and the money MSAD 1 gets from the state has followed suit.

"We've been in this reducing mode, this reduction mode," said Johnson. "We've eliminated 47 employees, 22 of those teachers, in the last four years."

Donna Lisnik But over that same four-year period, teenagers at Presque Isle High School have consistently outperformed students statewide on a variety of measures. Last year, for example, 53 percent of PI students met or exceeded state standards in reading on the SAT, compared to 47 percent of kids statewide.


Kids at PI did better in math, science and writing too. And the school's graduation rate has been consistently higher than the state average.


Donna Lisnik, PI's principal, says the high school and the district have experienced very little turnover in key leadership positions over the years.

"We have used our resources very, very well," Lisnik said. "And I think that's why we have been able to do so well."

Lisnik, who spent 13 years as a math teacher before joining the administration, says experienced leaders are good at ensuring that finite state dollars flow into the classroom. PI's dedicated teachers have formed professional learning communities, by subject area, that meet daily for common planning time. Each student has a guidance counselor monitoring their day to day progress.


But if there's one common denominator, one X factor responsible for the success here, it's the overall school culture. For a taste of it, just visit Fran Barter's 9th grade honors English class, any Friday morning.

"We will do a quick and one time only of our theme song on Friday mornings you know that we do the theme song," said Barter.

[Class singing] "Ain't no mountain high enough! Ain't no valley low enough! Ain't no river wide enough! To keep me from gettin' to you babe!"

That, of course, is "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," the Motown classic sung by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.

"And we are singing that 'cause I'm hoping that they will understand that, in some way, we have a responsibility for each other," said Barter. "And when we know that, nothing can get in the way of being there for each other."

Barter, who's in her 34th year at the school, says the song reinforces PI's core values, expectations and beliefs - a culture she believes is simply an extension of what many of her students first learn at home.

"In Aroostook County, kids are raised from early on to be disciplined," said Barter. "It used to be in the potato fields. We are hard workers. We are expected to be responsible, to be respecting other people."

PIHS Core Values Statement "Read effectively and reflect on that reading. Communicate clearly, orally and in writing. Think analytically. Respect one another." These tenets, part of PI's mission statement, are written on a big banner, for all to see, in the main entryway to the school. They're posted in every office, every classroom and every hallway.


And the amazing thing about those hallways, for a high school, is how orderly, neat, quiet and empty they are. There's virtually no loitering, teasing, swearing or other mischief.

Over in PI's tech center, students cut strips of vinyl siding for a playhouse they've built. Instructor Spencer Bragan shows senior Paul Farley how to install them.

"See, you even that out," said Bragan. "All the way across, that's even, that's perfect."

Farley said students at PI know there's little tolerance for goofing around.

"We have a very no - I don't know what you'd want to call it - no nonsense; it's kinda, 'Sit down, do your work, do well, pay attention,'" Farley said.

It's a simple ethos, one that's helping this high school outperform most others in the state. Next, we pay a visit to Belfast, where the local high school has a similar socioeconomic makeup, but is struggling to achieve the same results as its counterpart to the north.


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