2012-08-03 / Community

Local officials not worried about marks

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

After a recent study from Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance ranked Maine 40th out of 41 tested states in educational growth, Gov. Paul LePage responded with criticism about the status quo for the educational system as it stands right now in the state.

“We know Maine’s educational system is lacking and we are here to share these results with you so that we can move in the right direction,” said LePage in a news conference held on Wednesday, July 25. “This is a call to action.”

But in South Portland, the problem of slow educational growth may not be as dire as the governor and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen have described it.

South Portland Superintendent Suzanne Godin said schools in the city have been showing steady growth at both the elementary and high school levels. She said South Portland high school students are close to the national averages in SAT scores and show especially promising progress in Advanced Placement tests.

Godin said from 2003 to 2011, the number of AP tests South Portland students took nearly tripled. According to data from U.S. News and World Report, 20 percent of South Portland High School students took and passed at least one AP test last year.

“What we’re showing is, we’re involving more students in more rigorous academics,” Godin said.

At the elementary school level, Godin said the New England Common Assessment Program scores for elementary students in South Portland schools have also steadily improved. She said the lack of growth may be deceptive because Maine students have consistently scored well compared to other states, and making gains is easier for states that start with low scores.

“The reality is that Maine is above average in most areas and started toward the top of the pile, so making growth is harder to show. When I look at our (New England Common Assessment Program) and Maine high school assessment data, we are seeing steady positive growth across the board,” Godin said.

However, test scores can only tell part for the story of students in South Portland and around the state.

“Kids don’t grow up in a silo,” said Claire Berkowitz, research and KIDS COUNT director at the Maine Children’s Alliance.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation attempted to tackle the issues that affect education from a broader perspective when it released its annual KIDS COUNT index on July 25. The data breaks up Maine’s performance into four domains: economic well- being, education, health, and family and community context, which add up to an overall child well-being rank.

The combination of data, which includes how many children have health insurance, how many live in poverty and how many graduate on time, add up to give what Berkowitz called a “full picture” of children’s well being in the state.

Maine ranked 13th in the overall child well-being rank among all states, and scored comparatively well in health compared to a relatively low rank in education. One reason Maine ranked just 23rd in the education index of the study was the lack of children enrolled in preschool before they reach school age.

From 2008 to 2010, a majority of Maine’s 3- and 4- year-olds, 58 percent, were not enrolled in a preschool program. That’s a slight improvement over the previous three-year period, but Berkowitz said if the number of children enrolled in preschool programs goes up, the results will ultimately show when the students achieve more academic success later in life.

“Early childhood education is key to academic success in the future,” Berkowitz said.

Godin echoed Berkowitz’s thoughts on the importance of preschool programs, and said she has made preschool a priority in recent years.

“South Portland has taken some giant steps in the last few years in starting preschool programs. What we’re seeing was kindergarten was our highest truancy rate. There was a large divide between children who had a program prior to coming to school and students who hadn’t,” Godin said.

Next year, South Portland will expand its free preschool program, already available to students in the neighborhoods near the Skillin and Brown elementary schools, to families in the Kaler School neighborhood. Twelve spots in the new 4-year-old Kaler School preschool program will be available to residents in the neighborhood around the school. The final four will be open to students from anywhere in the city.

Last week, after the results of the Harvard study were released, Commissioner Bowen said, “We will be working with national experts from high-performing states on these initiatives, and we will be bringing a number of proposals to the Legislature next session, which we believe will get Maine’s schools headed in the right direction.”

But Godin is not convinced her students in South Portland are significantly behind those in other states. When asked if students from Maine are seen differently than others from around the nation once they leave the state, Godin responded, “absolutely not. We have very strong interest in our graduates. They go on to outstanding colleges and the military.”

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