In a joint presentation March 12 to the Regional School Unit 20 Board of Directors, Marianne DeRaps, middle and high school principal, and Larry Clements, elementary principal, discussed federal aid now available for the elementary school, as well as the need for more professional development time for teachers.

The elementary school could be in line for as much as $30,000 in grants next year, DeRaps told the directors.

Maine Department of Education deemed Searsport Elementary School a Tier III classification, or "experiencing significant challenges," making the school eligible for federal funds. The DOE report comes as part of the Every Student Succeeds Act, a federal education law that creates a long-term stable commitment to equal opportunity for all students.

With its implementation in 2016, schools were tested and assessed, and a baseline created. The data follows a three-year span, which is why recommendations have only now become available.

"They look at academic progress, looking for a 1.43-percent increase (each year) to demonstrate a growth pattern," Clements said.

The three areas specifically targeted by DOE as needing improvement by the school are math, English/language arts and chronic absenteeism.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as a student enrolled in the district but having missed 10 percent of enrolled days.

DeRaps, who is the curriculum coordinator for the district, said the absenteeism part "is a real challenge. The accountability seems to be placed on the school." She said the board should look at new policies that include "excused absences" or absences sanctioned by parents.

"I don't know what that would be — we need to see what other schools are doing," she said. "There has to be more teeth in it.

"Parents call in and say their kid is sick. What are we supposed to do? But we are held accountable for it. Or planned family vacations — those all count against the chronic absenteeism."

Improvement steps

DeRaps said a leadership team with two teachers was assembled to identify areas of need and it was discovered teachers need to commit to a 10-day regional professional development series.

She also said they plan to hire a response-to-intervention person (to help students who are struggling with a skill or lesson), a special education person (Title I) and central office personnel "and we have to meet twice a month for two hours."

Clements will meet regularly with the Transformational Leaders Network, consisting of other schools deemed Tier II or III, to talk about successes and learn from each other.

DeRaps said a group of administrators and teachers assembled to analyze new math programs for students in grades K-8. They rated the top three programs and selected "Ready Math" by Curriculum Associates as the No. 1 choice. Four teacher professional development days have been scheduled to go along with the new $9,000 math program, she said.

"I feel it is a very good price, and the reason is it's (designed) for nonprofits," she said. A lot of districts adopting a whole new math program spend anywhere from $50,000 on up."

Clements said they hired an attendance coordinator to start some groundwork on the chronic absenteeism part. Also, the school invested in a professional development day for the staff to help address "how we talk to kids that come from difficult backgrounds and situations outside of school."

Retired principal and longtime educator Amy Peterson-Roper has been assigned to the elementary school as a coach, DeRaps said, and already has had two meetings with teachers and administrators.

Clements said, "The great part about that is Coach Amy is just an email or call away, and she is very open to supporting us in the meantime."

If the district's application is accepted by the state, and meets federal guidelines, DeRaps expects the district to be eligible for $30,000 in grants next year.

Clements said currently there are 63 other schools who are identified to receive Tier III support in the state, but with U.S. Department of Education’s proposed revisions, Maine is likely to be required to identify additional schools.

Development time

Speaking on the need for teacher development time, DeRaps, who also chairs the Professional Evaluation and Professional Growth Committee, said there is a lack of time available for educators to "talk to each other" and work on academic achievements, focus on data and collaborate.

She asked the board for one hour a week, either by a late start or early release of students, to accomplish the initiatives of the PEPG Committee.

"We feel like we've lost some momentum because we've lost the ability to collaborate," she said. "We just feel this is good practice."

Director Tony Bagley said, "We're asking parents of 499 kids to adjust their work schedule every week for an hour?"

DeRaps replied, "That was our one big roadblock," because, elementary students especially, "need supervision."

Bagley questioned how much could be accomplished in an hour and also asked about extending in-service days to four and also extending the year.

One teacher in the audience said, "There is so much time in between in-service days, you lose the momentum, and it's so easy to snap up those in-service days for other things, for instance, like snow days."

"We are one of the few schools that don't have this already," DeRaps said. "It's becoming common practice because of that momentum."

Bagley asked if meetings could start at 2:30 p.m., which DeRaps said would not meet the teacher contract guidelines. After-school meetings would also fall outside the teacher mandate. "They are not allowed to volunteer their time," she said.

Superintendent Chris Downing said in the end, the board has "some concerns that have been expressed,"  and they would reconvene to discuss this option further, at a later time.