Web exclusive, August 19, 2010
School improvement grant process drags on
by Colin Powell
The state dropped a handful of major roadblocks in front of the Deer Isle-Stonington High School and the school board’s recent submission of a school improvement grant aimed at moving the school up from being a “consistently under-performing” school.
At a special meeting on August 12, the school board members discussed their options if the grant was not received by Friday, August 13, options which Principal Todd West had already laid out in a document presented at the board’s regular meeting earlier this month. Now, however, with that deadline past and no grant awarded, the school will have to proceed with a number of activities, planned to be funded by the grant, curtailed or outright cut. As reported last week, those cuts include a substantial amount of teacher development time that was to be provided by the grant money, as well as about half of the student support activities.
During a long discussion at the special meeting, Superintendent Bob Webster and West explained to the board that, after four revisions of the grant application, the Maine Department of Education informed them earlier this month that, because the grant money originates from the federal Title 1 program, among other things, all support staff must be “highly qualified,” as set forth in the federal definition. This means that all staff need full teaching certification, not provisional, attainable, or anything else, explained West. “This distinction is about having papers sorted in a certain way. It has nothing to do with performance or quality of staff,” added West.
West pointed out that at least one of the top candidates for a job created by the grant money would not fit the “highly qualified” requirement, as he would be coming to education via a non-traditional route. Beyond that, West said there are at least four current employees at the high school who would not qualify either, and some, he noted, are among the best educators in the school. “I presented four different hypothetical ways around it and they’ve all been met with, ‘We’ll ask the feds,’ or ‘no,’” said West.
Along with the Title 1 surprise, the school administration was also informed in early August that the third year of the grant proposal must include $100,000 of grant-related activities funded by the local budget. Explaining it to the board, West said the MDOE was interpreting that as evidence of williness to sustain reforms after grant years. “Not only is that disturbing that that wasn’t disclosed in the beginning, but it is also in conflict with what the national DOE has as a blueprint for these grants,” said Board Chairman Andrew Vaughn.
Webster told the board that he is concerned about how many more surprises there might be. “It gets to the question of what kind of implementation you’ll have with new staff walking into the building two weeks before school,” said Webster. “There’s no way to hire staff under anything but an emergency situation,” he added.
Vaughn said that especially with the latest news, he is happy to have West’s plan from earlier this month detailing what parts of the plan can be started depending on when or if the grant is awarded. “My biggest concern is that it’s an ambitious plan that will require a lot of work. Given that teachers start in two weeks, is there time to do this the way that it should be done? And if there’s not, I don’t think we withdraw. I think we tell the state we’ve done our part, but we have to be responsible to our students and teachers,” said Vaughn.
Board member Walter Kumeiga put forward the idea of creating phased implementation of the grant programs. Webster agreed, and added that it was “the only way we can do this reasonably and sensibly at this point.” He continued, “I think we can do many really important and successful things this fall with student support, but I don’t think we want to try to rush something together by tomorrow afternoon.” He reminded the board that he would have to sign his name on any contracts signed with teachers, and if the funding is not secure he won’t do it.