October 14, 2012

MAINE COMPASS: Waterville students, staff aim high, proudly doing more with less

Donald J. Reiter

Opening school in the fall takes a tremendous amount of time and effort and leaves little for reflection. With the first six weeks past and routines established I find myself ruminating on the following.

More is being expected of schools than ever before. Teachers are not only expected to continue to improve their skills and their students' test scores, but also to figure out how to implement a seemingly endless string of requirements and mandates. Here are just a few that will affect Waterville Senior High School in the near future:

* In 2014-15, after nearly a decade of using the SAT to assess high school students, the state will transition to the Smarter Balance Consortium's Common Core assessment and teachers will have to create new test preparation activities.

* By 2015-16, districts will be required to have new teacher and principal evaluation systems in place that include student learning as a factor.

* By 2015-16, Maine high schools will be required to graduate 90 percent of their students despite the fact that, according to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, no state in the country comes close to doing so; in fact, 70 percent of states graduate less than 80 percent of their students.

* In 2016, a visiting committee from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Waterville High School's accrediting body, will make its decennial evaluation visit to the school for which it takes a minimum of two years to prepare.

* By 2016-17, Maine high schools must award standards-based diplomas, despite the fact that the 2001 law mandating standards-based diplomas be in place by 2006-07 was repealed at the 11th hour (in 2007) after hundreds of thousands of teacher hours had been dedicated to the initiative.

Not only is more being expected of schools than ever before, but schools are expected to carry out these initiatives despite the facts that the state has never met its statutory responsibility to fund 55 percent of education and that it continues to reduce funding to schools.

The 2012-13 Waterville public schools' budget is the lowest since 2007-8. As a result, Waterville Senior High School has 7.5 fewer professional staff than it did three years ago and while the school's student population is declining, it is doing so at a much slower rate than that at which it is losing positions: as of this writing, the high school has 49 fewer students than when I came to the school five years ago (653 vs. 604).

Not only are schools expected to do more with less, but they are also expected to do so under a nearly constant barrage of withering criticism. Educators are sent enigmatic cartoons from elected officials and told to put students first as if the thought had never crossed their minds.

It would be easy to become disenchanted faced with such an overwhelming to do list and such dwindling support, but whenever I feel myself getting near that dark place I step out of my office and walk the halls of the high school to experience the great work teachers and students do every day.

The assistant principal tells me that the new attendance policy and our efforts at increasing student attendance are already bearing fruit: not even a month into school there were 68 fewer student absences than at the same time last year. He plans on recognizing classes with good attendance at community homerooms this year.

I pass a student filling her water bottle at a hydration station. The stations (one on each floor) provide filtered water for the high school community and were a gift from the school's Green Team, which funded the project by collecting returnable bottles and cans around WSHS for several months. Filling personal water bottles at the stations reduces bottled water consumption and, to date, the stations have dispensed the equivalent of more than 10,000 bottles of water.

The guidance director tells me about a comprehensive four-year, $75,000 grant she is writing that would target connecting student aspirations to attend college to a concrete plan.

Two math teachers approach me to discuss their plans to start a math team for high school students that would compete against other high schools at meets all around the state. The team has nearly 20 students. The teachers are organizing and running the team on a volunteer basis.

In the afternoon, I catch a field hockey game. The team has struggled with low numbers all season and today it has only 11 players, so every girl plays the entire game. The girls show a lot of heart and win a close game as they have been doing all season.

These are only a tiny fraction of the great things that happen at Waterville Senior High Shool every day; they are more than enough to make me proud of the staff and students who continue to rise above the barriers they face, continue to go above and beyond the call of duty, and continue to exceed the standard.

Donald J. Reiter is principal at Waterville Senior High School.

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