2014-05-16 / Front Page

Principal swap causes conflict

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer

Small Elementary Principal Bonnie Hicks, right, and Kaler Elementary Principal Diane Lang, address Small School parents Tuesday evening about their impending position swap in South Portland, driven by perennially low student test scores at Kaler. A similar meeting with Kaler parents is scheduled for May 20. (Duke Harrington photo) Small Elementary Principal Bonnie Hicks, right, and Kaler Elementary Principal Diane Lang, address Small School parents Tuesday evening about their impending position swap in South Portland, driven by perennially low student test scores at Kaler. A similar meeting with Kaler parents is scheduled for May 20. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — A plan to procure $1.6 million in federal funding for South Portland’s “failing” Kaler Elementary School has drawn sharp criticism from parents on both sides of the city this past week, in part because a condition of taking that money means booting the longtime principal, Diane Lang.

While Kaler parents have risen up in defense of Lang, others have denounced a decision by Superintendent Suzanne Godin to swap her with Bonnie Hicks, the principal at Small Elementary.

Opposition to the move even resulted in a petition signed by 170 people – although not all of them local residents – on the website change.org.

“You have chosen to retain an administrator who has not shown significant progress in seven years, and this decision concerns us as parents and taxpayers,” reads the petition.

“Small School and Bonnie Hicks have been doing everything right. They don’t deserve to be penalized because another school is underperforming,” wrote Jessica Routhier, who put her name on the electronic petition.

Kaler Elementary is one of 13 Maine schools eligible for a School Improvement Grant from the federal Title I program, based on low test scores.

The school is more formally known as the James Otis Kaler Community School of Exploration in Inquiry following a 2011 “renewal project” aimed at combating low test scores

When the Maine Department of Education released its inaugural list of school letter grades one year ago, Kaler was given an “F.” On a possible 400-point scale, Kaler received 169.3 points, the seventh-worst cumulative score of all 422 schools measured in Maine that house grades three through eight.

Kaler was among 13 Maine schools eligible to apply for a Student Improvement Grant under the federal Title-1 program as a result of the school’s scores on the New England Common Assessment Program test administered each October. Also factored in was the school’s high percentage of low-income students; 63 percent of the 230 students qualify for free or reducedprice lunches. According to Godin, only four schools met a March 28 deadline to notify the state of their intent to apply for the funding, and one has since withdrawn, meaning Kaler is almost certain to see some money.

Those dollars will be put to work setting up methods of instruction and student support at Kaler, which since reinventing itself in 2011 has focused on “project-based learning” designed to help students grasp educational concepts through “hands-on” work undertaken at their own initiative, rather than the more traditional method of rote memorization from uniform lesson plans.

In addition to developing a third teaching model in as many years, the grant money will aid data collection and public reporting, while paying teachers to work extra hours.

According to Godin, All Kaler students will begin classes an hour early, at 8 a.m., starting in September, while those who continue to struggle will be required to stay a set number of hours, yet to be determined, into the afternoon. How to juggle bus schedules to accommodate the increase in student hours at Kaler will be a decision made over the summer, said Godin.

Students still underperforming by this time next year may be required to attend as many as six hours of summer school in 2015.

According to DOE Facilitator Rachelle Tome, South Portland had to agree to one of four “dramatic improvement models” in order to apply for the SIG money.

One of those methods would have allowed the city to close Kaler and restart it as a charter school. However, that option was off the table due to the lengthy legislative process for gaining charter school approval in Maine. Another non-starter was to simply close the school. But South Portland does not have enough space in its four other elementary schools to absorb Kaler kids, said Godin.

The two remaining models differed primarily in that, while both required replacing Kaler’s principal, the other also called on for a minimum 50 percent turnover of teachers.

“That would have been too great an impact to every other elementary building in the district,” said Godin, who observed that a large percentage of Kaler teachers have logged less than three years at the school anyway, between retirements and the defection to other district schools of teachers who rejected the project-based learning model after its first year of implementation.

Instead of booting half its teachers, the chosen “transformational model” will require the development of a new teacher evaluation system at the school, one which must include “student growth” as a factor to “identify and reward staff who are increasing student outcomes; support and then remove those who are not.”

According to Godin, the principal’s job at Kaler was not advertised because “the position is not open.” In other words, she was not willing to simply fire Lang.

“Clearly, I believe that the administrator is not the single reason why Kaler is struggling” she said.

However, the decision to swap principals struck a nerve with Small school parents, many of who have complained that the change was kept under cover.

The school board OKed preparing the SIG application at its April 14 meeting, and gave unanimous assent to submitting it at its most recent meeting on Monday.

Along the way, Godin interviewed all elementary principals. Each one, she said, as well as one of the middle school principals, was willing to make the swap with Lang.

By late April, several Small parents say, they began to hear from their children that Hicks had been chosen, and that Lang would be their principal next year. That, they said, was not their preferred method of communication.

“I cannot control rumors,” said Godin. “but I promise you, I did not make that decision until last Tuesday.”

At Monday’s school board meeting, Summit Street resident Jeff Selser admitted that parents “freaked out” over the impending change.

“As with any change, there is an immediate and negative reaction. That’s just human nature,” he said, citing his subsequent concern “at the tone of rhetoric” directed at Lang.

For example, one email sent to Godin and School Board Chairman Tappan Fitzgerald, unsigned by its author, called Lang a “failing principal rewarded with a move to another elementary school in the district,” who “should have been fired two years ago.”

“How humiliating to hand a school to a failing principal,” read the letter. “That is sick. And you are pathetic, as you clearly do not see that you have not done the right thing.”

Despite such talk, Selser said, “After reflection I think this is a good decision.

“This may not be the solution, but it is a solution,” he said. “Let’s give it a shot. For crying out loud, we have a chance to get $1.6 million that comes from the federal government. If there’s that much money available to us, by God we should try to take it.”

“This decision [to swap principals] may have been made last Tuesday, but there’s been rumors and speculation longer than that. That gave people who were sure what was happening a lot of time to build up a lot of anxiety,” said Small School parent Elizabeth Perry at the parents’ meeting, which Godin said she was not able to call until the change was solidified, because it is a personnel matter.

At that session, parents expressed their fears about Lang, as well as what they hope to see result from the swap.

“I am proud of Kaler and happy that Bonnie [Hicks] is going to bring them a new set of eyes,” said Lang, after the meeting, as she surveyed a list posted to the gymnasium wall. “I know who I am as a person and as a leader and I have great support in my personal life and my professional life. So, this [uproar] has been fine. I understand that people just want to protect their children.”

Socio-economic disadvantage?

Many South Portland parents, both for and against swapping Kaler Elementary Principal Diane Lang with her counterpart at Small Elementary, Bonnie Hicks, have pointed out that regional buildings like the middle and high schools serve about the same number of free and reduced-priced meals and special education students. However, there is a wide disparity among the city’s five elementary schools, which closely correlates to school grades handed down by the Department of Education and standardized testing scores.

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