Small Schools with Big Politics
I grew up on an island, 12 miles off the coast of Maine. When I was 16, my friends and I called it "the rock." We had some appreciation for the fact that it was a great place to grow up and even some small understanding that our island public school, with about 70 students grades K-12, was unique and offered us unparalleled opportunities for learning and directing our own education. But with five students in my class, all of whom were girls, and just five boys in the junior class, by the time I graduated we were very ready to leave the "rock."
Today, nearly 10 years later, I am back on the island representing my town and 11 other islands and small towns much like mine in the Maine State Legislature. Being in the legislature was a job I certainly hadn't imagined myself doing in my twenties when I was 16, but after just a year in office, it has turned out to be an incredible opportunity to join the process of progress and change. And now, as my hometown school and other small schools I represent struggle under new state and federal education requirements and funding decisions, I struggle with how to make any positive progress on these problems.
Island schools and other small rural schools in Maine are currently dealing with three major political problems. First, they are confronted with the onerous paperwork and requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. While some may argue that NCLB will yield positive results, no one can dispute that in a one-room school house where one teacher runs the show (as is the case on at least three Maine islands) or where single teachers are in charge of multiple grades and a variety of subjects, these requirements are doubly challenging, contributing to burnout and taking away from the time teachers can spend teaching.
Second, the future of year-round island communities often hangs in a careful balance and is directly affected by the health and funding of local education. Without local schools that allow families to live on islands and create a center for community life, most island towns would simply cease to exist. Yet, with student populations largely under 150 for grades K-12, these schools are more expensive to run per student. The higher cost of local education then becomes a yearly debate at the annual winter town meeting in almost every town, with heated discussions about the difficult choices that are made between quality schools and property tax rates that keep island living affordable. On a larger scale, the state faces multiple citizen initiatives on the ballot in the next year that address education funding and a proposal to cap local property tax rates.
Lastly, under rising pressure from a billion- dollar budget shortfall and a lagging economy in Maine, words like "regionalization" and "efficiencies" are becoming more popular in the political realm. As one of the newest members of the legislative committee that decides where and how the state budget should be spent, these words have some merit. There are good reasons for our state to focus on making our schools and processes more efficient, like finding more ways to save money through purchasing programs, state training and technology. In addition, regionalization of some services can be valuable.
But these words are often loaded with another meaning--a specific agenda to consolidate small schools. And at the same time these very small schools are proving to be ideal places for creative learning and personal attention to students, they are also becoming political scapegoats for cost savings. Just last week my hometown island school went through a political ordeal that is probably all too typical and worth recounting.
No Child Left Behind requires every state to publish a yearly list of schools that did not meet the NCLB requirements as set by the state. For failing to meet any of these requirements a school will find itself on the "monitor" list. Two years on the list and a school becomes known as "failing." My school had been listed on the "monitor" list. In the eyes of the press and local people who didn't understand the act, this seemed to indicate that the school was failing. The school was listed in the newspapers and on all the published lists, without any mention of the specific reason for being listed. After a day of frantic phone calls I discovered that that the listing was due to the school's attendance rating: the Department of Education had the school listed with a 0% attendance. Clearly, it was a mistake.
In the words of the Maine Education Commissioner: "There are 84 different reasons a school can be 'listed', many having no relationship to the actual level of academic achievement of students in the school. One of these is average daily attendance. This proved to be a cumbersome area for the Department to validate, even though all school districts do file attendance reports with the Department at the end of each school year."
It turned out that the school's attendance was well above the required level and the listing was a mistake. In addition, in the corrective press release put out by the Department, North Haven Community School was not only removed from the "monitor" school list, but was also added to the "High Achieving Schools" list.
While Maine's Department of Education should have been far more attentive, I do not place the blame solely on them. In our haste for mandating a national solution that is supposed to fit all schools, and our combined need to prove that we are delivering the highest quality education at the lowest possible cost, there is little chance of getting it right all the time--or even getting it right on a regular basis.
While my school's short-term situation was easily remedied, fixing the larger issues created by NCLB and the complicated funding and educating environment in our country are not as easy, especially, in small towns.
As a legislator I see my most important role to be maintaining the quality of life and the future of 12 small Maine towns. Schools--good schools--will create viable futures for these towns. And these small town schools are models throughout Maine. Instead of creating paperwork, requirements, and task forces to eliminate these small schools, our attention must be focused on celebrating their proven successes and replicating them.
Hannah Pingree represents District 129 in the Maine State Legislature which includes the towns of: Deer Isle, Stonington, Swans Island, Frenchboro, Isle Au Haut, North Haven, Vinalhaven, the Cranberry Isles, Brooklin, Tremont, and Sedgwick.
Small Schools with Big Politics
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES