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Community invited to discuss school improvement options

Click here to see the full Deer Isle-Stonington High School—Low-Performing School Archive.

Last week the Department of Education announced a list of 10 Maine schools that were characterized as “persistently under performing.” Deer Isle-Stonington High School was among the schools listed. While this is hardly a coveted designation, it comes with potentially large sums of federal money for school improvement under the “Race To The Top” program. On Tuesday, March 23, there will be a community meeting to discuss our options at 6:30 p.m. in the high school cafeteria. The public is welcome to join this discussion.

Unfortunately this infusion of federal money comes with at least one foul string attached. Under the transformational RTTT model, in addition to an array of school improvement and reform measures, the principal of our high school must be replaced as a condition for funding eligibility. There are compelling reasons why removal of Todd West as principal of DISHS would be a grave mistake.

Mr. West was employed as principal on July 1, 2007, and is nearing completion of his third year. He was hired with the explicit goal of leading the school out of serious problems with low aspirations, poor student behavior and declining achievement that reached a critical point during the year and a half before his arrival. It must be acknowledged that during 2005-06 and 2006-07 DISHS went through a very difficult period. In Mr. West’s first year, the scores for the state-mandated SAT for 2007-08 showed that only 24 percent of DISHS 11th graders exhibited proficiency in reading and math.

• In the two and one-half years of his work with the faculty and student body, Mr. West has made an excellent start in turning the school around. He is a brilliant, young principal with the energy, skills, and dedication needed to guide and transform the school into a center of outstanding student learning. In less than three years Mr. West and the faculty have:
• planned a multi-year, comprehensive school improvement program;
• identified school-wide expectations describing essential skills for post- secondary success;
• designed a standards-based diploma including a senior exhibition to measure student achievement of school-wide expectations;
• established a student assistance team to identify and support at risk students;
• implemented a school “Learning Center” where academic support and accountability is provided (and required) for students who fail classes;
• used Title I funds for mandatory remedial reading instruction for students reading substantially below grade level;
• after the replacement of the 11th grade MEAs with the SAT, instituted the NWEA assessments to guide formative adjustments to reading and math instruction;
• initiated the use of student achievement data in Professional Learning Communities that has focused professional development on instructional improvement;
• dramatically improved the school climate reducing by 65 percent the total number of suspensions for serious disciplinary infractions; and
• continued development of project-based learning as exemplified by the award winning CREST program that integrates technology, English/language arts and marine trades instruction.

The Maine DOE picked DISHS from a small list of Maine high schools that use Title 1 funds to provide remedial reading instruction. In contrast to the DOE’s superficial process, the visiting accreditation team from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges actually spent several days in the school before coming to conclusions about conditions at DISHS. The 2009 NEASC accreditation report provides a much more thoughtful, current and accurate description of our school. Of particular note is the visiting team’s assessment of high school leadership. “As a result of the hiring of the current principal over two years ago, there has been a very noticeable sense of direction and purpose at DISHS that very clearly focuses on student learning.”

Replacing Mr. West as principal would not set the stage for transformation of the school. Such a dishonorable decision would betray the exemplary work that he, the faculty and students have accomplished together since 2007. DISHS is a school that is well underway on its transformational journey to high student achievement. Mr. West is the guiding force for continuation of that journey.

The folly of removing Mr. West is also confirmed by two of the criteria in the transformational model of RTTT requirements, “identify and reward school leaders, teachers, and other staff who improve student achievement outcomes.” In 2009, the SAT scores for proficiency in reading and math for last year’s junior class were 9.5 percent better than the 2008 scores. I’m confident that the DISHS 11th graders who take the SAT this spring will show another improvement in achievement.

RTTT also requires us to “implement strategies designed to recruit, place, and retain high-quality staff.” Replacement of Mr. West would remove a man who has established a record of solid school improvement. It makes no sense to short circuit our own school improvement effort by removing high-quality staff.

The DOE has used SAT averages to stigmatize poorly performing schools in order to attract federal money to Maine. Commissioner Gendron appears to be prepared to scuttle the careers of 10 Maine educators as stepping stones to the federal gravy train. How many people are too many to throw into the train wreck of federal education reform based solely upon test scores? A recently published book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch, provides a detailed analysis of misguided federal education policies. I am contacting state and national education leaders urging adjustment to their “one size fits all” RTTT requirements.

I will recommend school committee approval of participation in this federal school improvement initiative only if it makes sense. DISHS students should benefit from the resources provided by those RTTT funds. But I have no interest in this money if removal of Mr. West is among the requirements. That would be a stupid step backward.

The firing of Mr. West would be a tragic mistake. I hope an adjustment of federal RTTT requirements will make it possible for DISHS to receive RTTT funds and retain our principal. Applying the words of Ted Ames, the Island’s MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient, “He’s a keepah.”

Robert Webster

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