LEWISTON — While many Lewiston students take advanced classes, some come to school with barriers to learning: poverty, drugs, disabilities, emotional and physical problems, tough home lives and lack of English skills.
Another barrier to learning is being a child in a family that moves often.
“That's one of the biggest issues we have in under-performing schools,” said Lewiston School Superintendent Leon Levesque, who will retire Dec. 31.
In some classrooms, 40 to 50 percent of the students will not be there next year because they've moved, Levesque told a Great Falls Forum audience at the Lewiston Public Library on Thursday.
The barriers to learning are challenges, not dead ends, he said.
“If you accept them as excuses, you give up,” Levesque said. If the challenges are recognized and addressed, “we're on a track to succeed.”
With that, Lewiston has built many tracks in Levesque's 12 years. He listed initiatives to help students succeed:
- A comprehensive English language learner program for Somali immigrant students;
- An autistic program at Geiger Elementary;
- An aspirations lab at the middle and high schools to help students go to college;
- An Early College program that allows students to take college classes while in high school;
- Programs to help students at risk of dropping out; and,
- Pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds, among other initiatives.
Asked what advice he has for his successor, Bill Webster, Levesque said he wouldn't leave a to-do list. He'd tell Webster, "Don't worry. The job will find you.”
Levesque, 63, grew up in Augusta. He graduated from high school in 1968. "That June, I was in the Army,” he said, soon on his way to Vietnam.
After his tour, he returned home in 1969, worked double shifts during a summer job at the Statler paper mill, then went to college. As he read about the philosophies of education, “I thought this would be a really good career.” He became a French and English teacher.
'Power in that'
During his years as Lewiston superintendent, Levesque said he worked to build needed programs and to save taxpayers money.
Credited as a frugal manager, Levesque led Lewiston in building three new schools, Farwell and Geiger elementary and the high school's Green Ladle culinary school. The three schools cost $31 million; Lewiston taxpayers' share was $1.5 million, Levesque said.
He cautioned the audience that tougher budget times lie ahead. Federal stimulus money is scheduled to disappear in 2012, when superintendents are predicting significant red ink. If the federal government does not intervene, it could mean severe school cuts or tax hikes.
Meanwhile, many Lewiston students will need more help, Levesque said, as evidenced by the growing enrollment in summer school.
“We have to accept the fact that they're going to need a longer year,” Levesque said. They can't learn all that they must in the time allowed, he said.
Making school tougher is a shift in the philosophy of American education, he said. The philosophy used to be to teach the whole child: "If you focus on the heart, the head will follow.”
Today, there's so much stress and pressure on test scores and student performance that teachers are discouraged from taking the time to build the relationships that motivate students, he said.
“The philosophy has gone completely toward robotic, standardized testing” and punishments for schools that don't meet standards, he said, adding that schools must find a balance.
But for all of Lewiston's challenges, the city has much going for it: the community, Levesque said. Many agencies are working with schools. Remarkable successes are being achieved. The trend of working together is growing, and needs to continue to grow.
“There's power in that,” Levesque said.