A large crowd of parents, community members and teachers turn out to Wednesday night's York School Committee hearing, at which proficiency-based learning was discussed. Credit: Deborah McDermott | The York Weekly

YORK, Maine — York High School teacher Matt Convery told the York School Committee Wednesday night that as a York taxpayer, teacher and parent of a YHS freshman, he has “hit the trifecta” as a person affected by the school’s proficiency-based system instituted this year.

“I’ve been extremely frustrated with a lot of this process. My opinion is we started two years too late” in implementing proficiency-based learning in York, he said. “I’ve tried to listen to both ends of the extreme. These are logical, passionate people who care about our kids. But we as a community are fractured and polarized, and I’m finding very few people who want to come into the middle with me, who want to compromise.”

He was among a number of people who spoke to the committee, including parents both in support of and opposed to proficiency-based learning — and particularly a grading system instituted this year intended to reflect PBL but that many say they find confusing.

At the same meeting, school administrators announced a survey that was mounted on Tuesday and that already has 237 respondents, seeking parent input on the grading system.

Moreover, they announced that they will be instituting a more traditional grading system in the fall and took measure to revamp the system for this year’s freshmen.

The school department is under the mandate of a 2012 state law to provide a proficiency-based diploma to students graduating in 2021, this year’s freshman class. York has worked to create the framework for that during the past 18 months or so, while some school districts began shortly after the law passed.

Some parents are particularly concerned that the proficiency-based grading system adopted for freshman doesn’t accurately reflect achievement and is likely a disadvantage to students when applying to colleges. Rather, they say, the school should also adopt a traditional 1-100 system – which Principal Karl Francis announced last night they would do.

This “rush” to put a system in place is what Convery said he was speaking about. “We have a proficiency-based learning structure that has way too many problems because we were rushed. We need a structure to honor the traditional norms that our community values. We want honor rolls to recognize our kids. This is not hard.”

High school French teacher Nancy Stevens, however, urged the committee to separate the grading system from proficiency-based learning itself — which she supports and said is geared to helping all students reach their potential. The targets for learning which underpin PBL are pivotal to student achievement. “I believe in the power of proficiency-based learning because I’ve been implementing it for the past 20 years.”

State Rep. Heidi Sampson of Sanford, a member of the Legislature’s Education Committee and a critic of proficiency-based learning, also spoke. She said “parents feel silenced” on this issue. Teachers also have not spoken up until recently, she said, when many submitted testimony to her committee on several bills on this topic. “A proficiency-based diploma is the law; proficiency-based education is not the law. Adopting a proficiency-based education is not required, yet schools are deceptively convinced” that it is.

Parent Michelle Marean said her children benefit from PBL. They came from another state with an underperforming school system, and the system in York “allowed my children to become proficient (in one target) before they were required to move on to more advanced topics. Without that opportunity they would have been crushed.”

Parent Gerry Runte suggested that the school department establish an online clearinghouse with factual information on PBL not only in Maine but in other states as well. This could supplement “face to face dialogue on further implementation.”

Assistant Superintendent Anita Bernhardt told the committee that the high school community has felt the strain of implementing PBL this year. “The faculty has been doing yeoman’s work. I’m terrifically impressed that the high school has come as far as it has. But it’s not been without some misunderstanding with staff and administrators. We acknowledge we need to do a better job.”

Francis said the school will adopt a dual system starting next fall, with both the proficiency based and traditional grading. “We value both,” he said.

When he announced this at a staff meeting Wednesday, staff members “were surprised. There was some frustration that changes are happening again. The staff is tired. They are working really, really hard to do what we’re asking them to do. It’s been a heavy, heavy lift to do five years of work in two years’ time. But they rolled up their sleeves and said, ‘How are we going to make this work for kids?’”

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