May 16, 2010

Poor test scores cost principal his job

School district adopts aggressive plan, but has to replace well-liked leader

By Kelley Bouchard
Staff Writer

NAPLES -- Roger Lowell learned that his job was in jeopardy in early March, when the Maine Department of Education named Lake Region High School among the 10 persistently lowest-performing schools in the state.

The shocking label meant that the high school was eligible to share $12 million in federal education reform funding. To get a grant, the Lake Region School District had to adopt an aggressive, three-year school improvement plan and replace Lowell, its principal for 16 years.

Within a few weeks, an appointed community group came up with a long list of problems at the high school: SAT scores below the state average, with boys trailing girls in reading and writing. High student apathy. Low parent involvement. Inadequate teacher evaluations. A "culture of mediocrity" across the district.

The morning before the school board voted 9-3 to accept the federal money, Lowell announced that he would retire in June. Many in the district praised him for stepping out of the way and putting an end to the turmoil that had gripped the community, in part because Lowell is so well liked.

Lowell hadn't planned to retire just yet, and he never imagined that his 40-year career in education would end on such a sour note.

"This whole thing has been a real kick in the face," said Lowell, 61, sitting in his office at the high school on Route 302, a massive U.S. flag hanging on the wall behind him.

Lowell speaks for many -- students, teachers and others -- when he describes the unexpected and, for some, painful upheaval that the towns of Bridgton, Naples, Sebago and Casco went through after Lake Region High made "the list."

What followed was a rapid and divisive review of school programs, which happened in several communities on the first-time list, especially the seven that decided to accept the federal money.

Some people found the process overwhelmingly negative, particularly in light of a recent accreditation report by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges that was largely positive, Lowell said. The review did take into account several positive trends, including fewer students dropping out and more going on to college.

Several students said they were shocked and embarrassed to learn that their SAT scores, which Maine uses to gauge academic progress under federal criteria, put Lake Region High on the list.

"We had no idea that our scores would have anything to do with this list," said Abby Hancock, a senior who plans to attend Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

Students said that some of their peers who aren't planning to go to college don't take the SAT seriously. Even students who are going to college don't always try their best on the school-sponsored test because they plan to take it again. Unfortunately, higher scores on follow-up tests don't count when the state figures the lowest 10 schools.

Some faculty members weren't happy with the high school status report that was issued last month by the 15-member community group, which included three teachers. In a written response, faculty members said the group's interpretation and presentation of statistics on student performance was biased, confusing and sometimes inaccurate.

"Some people are feeling bruised and misused by the process," said Patrick Phillips, superintendent of SAD 60 since 2007. "Ultimately, the school board took a bold step and decided that it's not OK for some kids to go through their education and not meet minimum standards of proficiency."

Last week, SAD 60 applied for $1.7 million to implement a school-improvement plan at Lake Region High. District officials said it was more money than they were willing to turn down, especially in the current budget-cutting climate.

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