News Feature

Deer Isle
Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, June 5, 2014
Community members raise concerns about classroom plans for 2014-15
School board-public communication questioned as well

by Jessica Brophy

At the June monthly meeting, several parents of soon-to-be fourth grade students expressed concern to the Deer Isle-Stonington school board about next year’s classroom plans.

The retirement of second-grade teacher Arlene Roberts resulted in a reassignment of teachers in the elementary school. Roberts’ vacancy was not filled. Superintendent Mark Jenkins has discussed adjusting the number of teachers and other staff to better fit the declining school enrollment through attrition, or as teachers retire.

Elementary school principal Mike Benjamin said grade four will have one teacher, while grades three and five will each have two. For reading and math, fourth grade students will be split into two groups. Grades 3-5 will group math and reading students according to their placement on the Northwest Evaluation Assessment (NWEA) tests, which students are currently taking. Students will not be placed in a group more than one grade level above or below their current grade, but the groupings will allow teachers to teach a narrower range of abilities, and will help avoid moving too fast for students who need extra help and too slowly for students who are excelling.

The change was announced in a letter home to parents in April, said parent Becca Emerson. In that letter, said Emerson, parents were told there would be a parent meeting to answer any questions. To date, no parent meeting has been held.

Benjamin said the NWEA testing—and the grouping of students for math and reading based on performance—was running behind schedule and that he hopes to hold the meeting next week.

The 2014-15 school budget was approved by the school board and residents of the town at the annual budget meeting on May 29, and is to go before Deer Isle and Stonington voters on Tuesday, June 10, for approval or rejection. Emerson said the school’s late notice to parents about the changes in grades 3-5, particularly the reduction to a single grade 4 teacher, meant there was little opportunity for parents to be involved in those decisions.

“I think this takes away the rights of parents to have a conversation about this,” said Emerson.

Parent Bill Shepard said he thought the board was putting the cart before the horse. “This change should have been brought to the board and then brought to parents. I don’t think it’s fair to taxpayers and to parents.”

Jenkins said the change could have been communicated more effectively, but that he’s “absolutely convinced” that grouping students according to current abilities would be more productive than the random grouping of classroom assignments.

School board member Stephen York said that while this particular issue may not have been unrolled effectively, he hopes that community members come out on June 10 to approve the budget.

Board member Andy Vaughn said he wasn’t sure how he will vote on the budget referendum. “I have a lot of questions,” he said.

Community member Suzanne Ruch raised a concern about the board publicizing meetings. Ruch said a special meeting held on May 13 was not well-publicized, and included a discussion of the adult education budget.

Vaughn said he thought part of the problem with “increased apathy” is that parents “feel it’s not worthwhile to attend school board meetings.” Vaughn said the board approved a budget for 2014-15 “before parents had input.”

Ruch also raised a concern about the district’s strategic plan, which she said had not been discussed in public meetings in “more than a year.” A strategic plan was approved by the board in August 2013.

“How can we move forward without a strategic plan?” asked Ruch. “There isn’t a plan in place. I think this is a huge embarrassment for us.”

A brief discussion about the state of the strategic plan was held, with board members asking for it to be an agenda item for the July meeting.

Special education

In other business, Special Services Director Owen Logue gave an end-of-year report on special education in the schools. This year, the program underwent a state audit. Logue said he and other staff worked diligently to bring files up to date, and is awaiting the state’s report on the program.

Logue identified several upcoming challenges for the special education program, including improving transition plans from high school to post-graduation, improving physical restraint training and recruitment of quality, qualified personnel.

One of the major issues Logue said he has encountered in his first year as Special Services Director is the lack of parental involvement, which he called disturbing. While there are some parents who are highly involved, there are some parents who don’t attend annual review meetings or respond to requests for parental consent in a timely fashion.

“In some cases, parents don’t really seem to care,” said Logue. He said he has also never seen so many students in his career with anxiety issues.

The issue of billing MaineCare for some services provided to students was raised again. The practice of billing was dropped several years ago and has yet to be reinstated, as the paperwork is time-intensive and it can be questionable whether the reimbursement rates are worth the cost of manpower. Logue said he recommends moving toward reinstating billing.

York said he remembered having a similar conversation a few years ago, and said he was unsure why billing was not reinstated then.

Summer School

Benjamin offered an update on summer school plans; nearly 40 students so far have signed up for summer school. Five teachers and three education technicians will be teaching in the program. Breakfast, lunch and transport will be provided for students. Last year’s summer program was considered a success, according to a report from Benjamin in September 2013.

Teachers Josh Frost and Sally Foley presented information on the elementary school’s math program. The program offers what Foley called “cutting edge” technology and is a “feeder program” into the high school’s math program. There is online textbook, video tutor support and other technology to help the program.