BANGOR, Maine — Five years ago, 10 Maine schools got either a wake-up call, a slap in the face, or both when the state Department of Education released its first list of “persistently lowest-achieving schools.” Included on the list were K-12 schools where students showed low levels of proficiency in math and reading results during the previous three years.
The schools were located across the state — the Gov. James B. Longley Elementary School in Lewiston, Riverton Elementary School in Portland, Deer Isle-Stonington High School, Sumner Memorial High School in Sullivan, Houlton High School, Carrabec High School in North Anson, Hodgdon High School, Lake Region High School in Naples, Livermore Falls High School and Madison Area High School.
The list was a hard pill to swallow for these schools and their communities. Parents suddenly discovered their kids were attending schools that, according to federal standards, weren’t passing muster.
Still, there was an upside, several administrators said in recent interviews as they reflected on the inglorious designation. It got the communities involved and on board with change, and qualified the schools for financial assistance to help right the ship.
Since being placed on the list, six schools have seen varying degrees of improvement in standardized testing results, two have stayed relatively flat, one with significant demographic challenges continues to struggle to meet standards and one school no longer exists. Even those that didn’t see marked improvement in proficiency results reported other forms of success, including increased graduation rates, reduced disciplinary issues or improved overall “school culture.” Six of the schools took federal funding to help sort through their issues, while the rest tackled the problems on their own.
One thing they have in common with every other school in the state: All are adapting to new Common Core-based standards and testing that make the tests they were judged on a few years ago largely irrelevant today.
In the 2007-2008 school year, Deer Isle-Stonington High School was languishing. Just 57 percent of its students were graduating. The school had the highest dropout rate in the state, and there were 240 suspensions in one year involving 170 students. As a result, academics suffered.
“Our primary focus was on changing the culture of the school at that point,” Principal Todd West said in a recent interview. The school was at a “crisis point” when West took the helm in 2007, he added.
The school had already implemented program changes in hopes of reversing its declining performance trends — forming a team of teachers to identify students at risk of falling behind, increasing teacher collaboration and starting “student assistance teams” — and then came the notice from the DOE.
Deer-Isle Stonington High School was among the state’s first crop of lowest-achieving schools, announced in March 2010, based on results of the previous three years of testing. The designation didn’t take into consideration the improvement work already underway at the school, according to West.
Notice also went to Gov. James B. Longley Elementary School in Lewiston, where 100 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch under federal poverty guidelines and 60 percent are English language learners, according to Lewiston schools Superintendent Bill Webster. Webster joined the district about six months after the Department of Education placed Longley on the list.
There are similar stories across these 10 original schools — high rates of poverty among students, large populations of refugees and immigrants in city schools, persistent “school culture issues,” such as disciplinary problems or drug use.
The state’s acknowledgement of these schools’ struggles brought education issues to the forefront in these districts.
“That definitely made education the focus of our community’s conversation,” West said. “And the result of that has been nothing but positive.”
A way up
There was help available for these schools, about $12 million in federal school improvement grants, or SIGs. That money is divided up among receiving schools, who have three years to spend it on improvements and turn around performance.
There were and are substantial caveats to receiving SIG funding, however. To get the money, schools must agree to pursue “aggressive plans” to turn things around. Options include redesigning or replacing the school, converting to a charter school or closing down and sending students to better-performing districts.
For many Maine schools, those options aren’t realistic, so most choose another dramatic shift — replacing principals who have been at the helm for more than two years, making significant instructional reforms and taking steps to improve teacher effectiveness or replacing staff.
Riverton School in Portland, Longley School, Sumner High School, Livermore Falls High School, Lake Region High School and Carrabec High School applied for and received a total of $10.7 million in SIG funding.
Deer-Isle applied for a SIG allocation, but was rejected. West, who was allowed to stay on as principal because he hadn’t been the school’s administrator during the full prior three years of testing, said he felt that the rules evolved as the grant process went along.
The remaining schools didn’t apply.
Most of those that did, and several that didn’t, have seen leadership changes at the level of principal or superintendent since 2010.
Longley, for example, took the drastic steps of changing its principal and replacing half its staff, according to Webster, who took over the district a few months after the low-performing notice.
“You lose one if not two years because you really have to rebuild the school from scratch,” Webster said.
The new leadership and the changes implemented, whether through SIG funding or independently, are showing results five years later.
In spite of not receiving any SIG support, the changes Deer Isle started implementing around 2008 have had a dramatic effect in recent years. The school’s graduation rate of just over 50 percent has surpassed 90 percent in each of the past three years. Its student suspensions fell from more than 200 in 2008 to 40 this year, according to West.
Riverton elementary in Portland, which received the largest 2010 SIG grant to the tune of $3.4 million, instituted many changes, including increased professional development efforts for teachers and more student focus on reading and writing, according to Principal Jeanne Malia, who joined Riverton during the second year of the administration of SIG funding. The school also signed on to take part in Columbia University’s The Reading and Writing Project, an intensive research project that aims to help schools develop changes to curriculum and teaching methods to help improve performance.
The school, which faces similar demographic challenges to Longley, has increased its proficiency on New England Common Assessment Program tests (which the state used to measure proficiency in grades three through eight until this year) from about 25 percent in math in 2010 to 50 percent last year.
Proficiency in reading at Riverton increased from 42 percent to 60 percent during that same timeframe. Statewide, math proficiency on NECAP tests in 2015 was about 60 percent and reading proficiency was 69 percent, so the school is catching up to the rest of the state, but still has work to do.
“When you see a headline in the paper where the school was identified as a failing school, that really galvanizes the staff in terms of ‘We can do this,’” Malia said.
Sumner used its $1.7 million in SIG money to improve instructional practices and start a Pathways program, among other changes, according to Principal Marianne DeRaps.
Pathways is an alternative education program aimed at keeping struggling students, or those at risk of dropping out, engaged in school by having them tackle “meaningful” projects. For example, the school has a marine pathway in which students can become a journeyman, learning navigation, finances of fishing and about fishing itself on a boat donated to the school. The goal was to retain students who were considering leaving school to make quick money fishing.
The school’s graduation rate has improved from under 70 percent in 2009 to 83 percent last year. The percentage of students who tested proficient or better in math climbed from 27 percent in 2009 to 43 percent in 2014. Reading proficiency climbed from 26 percent to 39 percent during that same period. Those proficiency numbers are still below statewide averages, but they do show significant progress, DeRaps said.
Not every school from the 2010 low-achiever list has seen results that are as dramatic.
The $2 million in SIG money that Longley received went toward adopting new best practices, hiring math and literacy coaches and freeing up teacher time for collaboration and common planning time, according to Webster.
The school has seen its percentage of students who test “substantially below proficient” on NECAP tests worsen from 35 percent in 2010 to 44 percent last year. Still, 2014 is an improvement from the three prior years, in which more than half of students fell substantially below proficient.
“Even after 5 years, we’re not where we’d like to be,” Webster said.
Livermore Falls High School, which received $1.2 million in SIG funding, no longer exists. It merged with Jay High School in 2011 to form Jay-based Spruce Mountain High School under RSU 73. It was the only school on the list of 10 that isn’t around today.
Maine Department of Education officials acknowledge that they don’t expect immediate measurable improvement from SIG recipients.
The tests that SIG funding and low-performance school lists have been based on to this point, NECAPs and SATs, don’t carry as much weight as they used to. This year, the state switched to Smarter Balanced Consortium tests aimed at measuring student proficiency to Common Core standards adopted under Maine Learning Results.
“School improvement doesn’t happen overnight,” DOE spokeswoman Samantha Warren said in a recent email. “First come the climate and cultural shifts, and then the achievement results will follow.”
The DOE continues to produce lists of underperforming schools eligible for SIG funding. Its list for 2015 includes 20 schools, and the state has submitted an application for renewed SIG funding to the federal DOE.
Last year, the DOE awarded a grant to just one of 13 eligible schools — $1.6 million to South Portland’s James Otis Kaler Elementary School. That school has been tasked with raising student proficiency in math and reading by 10 percent each year during the three-year life of the grant, according to the department.
Kaler received an “F” grade on its state report card in each of the past two years and suffers from a high teacher turnover rate and high percentage of economically disadvantaged students, according to the Department of Education. A dozen schools have received a total of $19.5 million in SIG funding through the DOE since 2010.
“We believe every Maine school can make improvements by focusing on existing resources,” said Warren in a recent email.
Many schools that appear on these lists are in rural areas that struggle with poverty, while others are in some of the state’s larger cities in areas with large populations of refugees and immigrants from around the world.
“There is a lot of great work happening at Longley,” Webster said, citing hard work by teachers and students alike to improve performance among a large population of impoverished students who came into school with English as a second language. “But the student body as a whole and the backgrounds they come from are probably going to keep Longley an ‘F’ school.”
Montello, another Lewiston elementary school, was placed on the state’s 2014 lowest achieving list. That school is twice Longley’s size — more than 700 students — 38 percent of whom are English language learners, according to the Department of Education.
With the switch to a new testing system, the state will take a break from both its low-achieving, SIG-eligible list, as well as its school grading system until baseline data is available from the new Smarter Balanced testing. School report cards are expected to return in the fall of 2016. Because no new SIG-eligible list will be released in the 2015-16 school year, the list from this year will carry over until baseline data is available under new testing in the 2016-17 school year.
“For those schools with the greatest challenges, this additional [SIG] funding — and perhaps as importantly, the difficult conversations, improvement planning process and tough decisions these grant applications require, can be a catalyst for long overdue change,” Warren said.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.