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What’s the plan to improve local education?

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

Bad news sure is hard to take. Especially when the news is in regard to the future of our young people.

So it’s not surprising that last week, when the state released the news that it considers Deer Isle-Stonington High School one of the 10 worst in the state, our local education leaders responded defensively. Some of their finger pointing had some justification—the state’s analysis of and criteria for the selection process could have been better chosen; the federal criteria is pretty harsh. Some of their response was less justified and in effect ended up blaming our community and students by intimating our students do not want or need a college-ready education. And ultimately, their focus on the provision requiring failing schools to replace their principals sidesteps their own accountability for a real and disappointing situation.

While not surprising, this single-note defensiveness is as disturbing as the news itself.

No matter how you analyze it, this is a wake-up call, and very possibly a crucial opportunity, for us as a community. The federal “Race to the Top” program is based on the premise that schools which fail our students are required to take drastic actions to quickly improve the education they offer. Every year in which we make only slow, incremental change is another year we fail more students. This news is a call to our community to have a sense of real urgency regarding our local schools. Who is accountable, and what is the plan?

In his “Mariner Moment” column [published March 11], Principal Todd West (who indeed we should take every step possible to retain) correctly acknowledges many of the real issues—apart from the SAT scores used by the state in its recent analysis—which we can use to identify DISHS as a “persistently low achieving school.” These include not only the low graduation rate he cites (75 percent), but also the fact that many of our high school graduates do not have the skills needed to effectively perform basic jobs in our community, as recently identified at a community business breakfast with the principals; as well as the fact that we still, faced with the demands of today’s global marketplace on our fisheries and every aspect of our local economy, send less than 50 percent of our graduates on to college (National Student Clearinghouse data). Less than 30 percent of the Deer Isle-Stonington class of 2003 (the most recent class for which statistics are easily available) hold a college degree from either a two- or four-year institution. And high school graduates earn, on average, only 62 percent of what those holding a four-year bachelor’s degree earn (Compact for Higher Education). While our community’s lobster fishery lessens the impact of that earnings statistic, it does so for fewer and fewer of our (mostly male) graduates.

Thus by any measure and over a long period of time (pre-dating Todd’s less than three-year tenure by many years), our schools have not been doing justice to our students’ or our community’s needs. Who is accountable, and what is the plan?

The “Race to the Top” funding legislation—based on national data which suggests school leadership and improved teaching practices can make huge differences in student performance, no matter what level of family, individual, or community disadvantage those students may face—is an attempt to hold educators accountable for our schools, which is why all four options have a “remove the principal” requirement. Our local education leaders have criticized the program for being based on urban models, while not explaining the educational structures underlying such models. Urban school models give principals local control of their buildings and programs, making them ultimately accountable for what happens in those schools. As professional educators, they are the ones paid to account for the results they produce; and most importantly they are given the tools and authority to assume this accountability. In urban school districts, covering hundreds of thousands of students, there is only one superintendent/CEO far removed from day-to-day operations, and one appointed school board, often containing professional educators, also far removed from daily operations.

This new legislation hold principals accountable because it expects them to have the tools and authority required to be accountable. In our rural districts, the high value we place on “local control” means that accountability is shared among principals, superintendents, and school committees. There are many cooks in the kitchens of rural education.

Now that the “Race to the Top” funding has made principals a primary criteria for school reform, our superintendent and school board members appear eager to invest in Todd the accountability that until now they juggled among each other. If together we can identify and create change which gives our very good principal the tools to be accountable—an effective budgeting process based on goals and measurable results rather than on abstract bottom line numbers; innovative, well negotiated staff contracts based on what is best for our students, not solely taxpayers nor teachers; and the authority to move quickly with the changes our school requires—then that will be an important investment in necessary structural improvements for local education.

Ultimately, this is our community school and we are all accountable: and we have been given a wake-up call to action, whether or not we are able to accept the large amount of federal money potentially available to us. The criteria for competing for such a large grant to “race to the top” is clearly defined: our schools need us as a community to identify a clear line of effective accountability; to demand consistent proof of vastly improved results; and to create and communicate an actionable plan for making these things happen. Only by admitting what’s wrong and taking big steps to change it can we create the schools our students and community deserve.

Linda Nelson

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