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Grading Maine Schools Part 2: Two Similar Schools, Two Very Different Grades
05/21/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

Decades of research has comfirmed that kids from lower income families struggle more in school than children from wealthier homes with more educated parents. Yesterday, we learned about how one school in Northern Maine has been consistently bucking this trend. Presque Isle High School got a "B" under the LePage administration's new grading system. Like Presque Isle, Belfast Area High School, down in Waldo County, has between 500 and 600 students, half of whom qualify as low-income under federal poverty guidelines. But Belfast's test scores are lower, so it got a "D" from the state. Jay Field reports in part two of our series on school grading.

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So, it's important to note right up front that few administrators or teachers care for the state's new grading system. Presque Isle High is in rare company statewide. But Donna Lisnik, the school's principal, hardly celebrated when she found out PI got a B.

"We know we do good work here. I think we're better than they said we were," she says. "I don't think it's fair. I look at some of the schools around who did very poorly, and I'm thinking, 'Their teachers are working so hard.'"

Teachers like Diana Leighton at Belfast Area High School. Leighton, who's taught math here for 33 years, is helping one of her homeroom students, a junior, fill out an application to join the Marines when he graduates.

"One of our biggest strengths is how we work with our kids and how we care about our kids, and how we want them to succeed," Leighton says. "And to get a D is an absolute discouragement to us, as a staff, and to our kids and our community. It absolutely has done nothing but discourage people" - at a time, notes Leighton, when the school knows it needs to get better and has been already been working on improvement strategies for months.

Last year, Belfast's graduation rate was better than the state's as a whole. The school regularly sends its college-going seniors to an impressive array of institutions. But its scores in recent years on the SAT, a major component of the LePage administration's grading system, are low compared to state averages.

Steve Fitzpatrick is Belfast's principal. "That is closely linked to, in my perspective, the social economic realities that we deal with," he says.

Up in Presque Isle High, educators have successfully instilled a schoolwide culture of civic responsibility and high academic expectations - regardless of whether a student is from a low-income or more well-off family, or is headed for college or work. On a recent Saturday at Presque Isle, the level of student buy-in was evident: Not a single junior missed sitting for the
SAT test. Fitzgerald says Belfast isn't there yet.

"There are students who don't understand the correlation of their dreams and aspirations to that particular test," fitzgerald says. "The fundamental question is whether it's applicable to them. That is our job to indicate the importance of that and
to raise the awareness level and the effort, in terms of addressing that particular test."

At the beginning of the school year, Fitzpatrick and his staff launched a series of new initiatives to change the school's culture. Belfast is working with the Great Schools Partnership, a Portland based non-profit, on a three-year plan to align the school's curriculum and teaching methods with the common core standards being adopted by states across the country.

"The RTI afterschool program could be geared more toward the kids that just didn't do the work, not that need the extra explanation," he says.

On recent morning, music teacher John Cameron briefs members of the school's learning committee on a new program to reach and turn around vulnerable students who've veered off track.

"It's a matter of sitting down. Maybe they need a quite place to do their work. Maybe they just need someone to help them stay focused," he says.

Cameron and the other teachers and administrators at Belfast say doing a better job of reaching these kinds of kids was their top priority, well before the state report cards came out. If they succeed, the state grades likely won't loom as large.


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