Ten Maine schools have such persistently low test scores that the federal government is offering them a lot of money to improve.
The catch: They’ll have to make some drastic changes, including replacing their principal.
“The initial response that we’ve seen, I think, has been very positive,” said David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education. “While they may not love all the pieces of it, they’re really looking at it as an opportunity for students, for making some significant improvements to the school.”
The department announced Tuesday that 10 schools are eligible to share $12 million in federal grants over three years. Because funding will be based on the cost of the improvements proposed, schools may get different amounts.
Longley Elementary School in Lewiston and Livermore Falls High School were among the 10.
Schools will not be forced to apply for the funding. But if they do and are approved, they will have to agree to either convert to a charter school, implement comprehensive reform, redesign or replace the school or close the school and transfer students to higher-performing schools in the system. In all cases, if it wants the grant, the school must replace its principal if that person has held the job for more than two years.
According to the Maine Department of Education, the charter school option is not allowed in Maine. Of the remaining options, the department believes most districts will elect to reform their school. However, in addition to replacing the principal, the reform option requires districts to lengthen the school day or otherwise increase learning time, reform classroom instruction and allow the school more flexibility it its operation. The school must also increase the effectiveness of teachers and school leaders by increasing training, rewarding teachers who show improvement and removing teachers who don’t.
School systems have until April 2 to decide whether or not to apply for the money.
Lewiston Superintendent Leon Levesque said he’s not sure yet whether his school system will.
“We don’t know all of the details yet. We’re going to present what the requirements are to the School Committee,” he said. “Our initial reaction is that it’s a good opportunity to receive additional resources.”
Nearly every Longley student is poor, 62 percent are learning to speak English and the school has a mobility rate — the rate of students who move in and out — of 62 percent. Levesque said the school’s classification was not a surprise. But he wished the federal government would have given Lewiston money to beef up its programs years ago, before requiring data to show Longley’s students were not scoring as well nor improving as fast as their peers in other schools.
“We didn’t need three years of testing to tell us we needed accelerated learning (to help students catch up),” he said.
Instead the school has struggled to improve on its own.
Principal Thomas Hood said his staff has long dreamed about the things they could do for students if only they had the money — longer school days and longer school years, enrichment activities, mental health help for students and ongoing, high-quality teacher training in the school.
“It was something the local and state could never provide,” he said.
Now the school could see some or all of those dreams come true. But only if Hood, who has been Longley’s principal for 13 years, will give up his job.
He doesn’t like it. But he’s willing.
“It’s time to take this opportunity with the lumps that come along with it,” he said. “We really have to focus on the kids and this is what that’s about.”
The Maine Department of Education said schools must replace their principal, but that person can take another job at the same school or be transferred to another school within the system without affecting the grant.
Shawn Lambert, principal of Livermore Falls High School, is also facing replacement. He’s been there for four years.
“I feel like the rug has been pulled out from underneath me,” he said.
Like Lewiston, Livermore and Livermore Falls have not yet made a decision about applying for the grant for their school.
Livermore Falls High School is a a 330-student rural high school with high poverty rates and low student aspirations, among other issues. Lambert said the school has worked for years to raise test scores, lower drop-out rates and increase college attendance rates. And there has been improvement. In 2007, for example, the school became accredited for the first time in more than a decade, earning more than 50 commendations from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.
Lambert believes the high school could do even more with more money. He said he was happy for the opportunities the federal grant represented, particularly when it comes to repairing and improving the building itself. But he also believes the government is saying his administration has been ineffective. And that, he said, is wrong.
“It’s kind of taken us aback,” he said. “Nevertheless, give us lemons and we’ll make lemonade.”
The other schools on the list are: Deer Isle-Stonington High School, Houlton High School, Riverton Elementary School in Portland, Sumner Memorial High School in Sullivan, Carrabec High School in North Anson, Hodgdon High School, Lake Regional High School in Naples and Madison Area Memorial High School. Schools made the list if they served poor students, had low reading and math scores and did not improve those scores at the same rate as other schools in Maine.