New superintendent: 'Parental involvement key'School leader talks about prioritizing reading, commuting to work and school choice
Rockland — In a conversation with The Courier-Gazette, new Regional School Unit 13 Superintendent Lewis Collins said the most important factor in student success is involvement and encouragement from parents.
He also addressed other issues including his commuting to the district and the priorities set on which subjects are taught in schools.
Currently, Collins lives in Readfield, northwest of Augusta, and commutes to the district. He will only be in the district Mondays and Tuesdays until mid-October, according to an email from the superintendent's office.
Courier: Are you going to move to Knox County?
"That's my wife's and my hope. It's all dependent on the real estate market and whether or not we can sell our place in Readfield. I'm pretty sure you're aware of those limitations. Our goal for several years is to move to this area. ...I hope to be a resident here in the not-too-distant future.
"I'm looking at a studio apartment next week. What I'm hoping to do is have that in place so that my nighttime meetings, I'm not trying to pretend I can drive another hour back to Readfield at night in a snowstorm. So I'll be paying rent here as well."
What are some of your goals? With your background in special education do you have goals in that area in particular?
"My goal for this first year is to get to understand this school district, to get to know it, to get to know the people in it. Certainly special ed's one of those programs as superintendent, I want to know what's going on in it. I want to know what's going on with NCLB [No Child Left Behind] and gifted and talented. But my first year, this is a large district. I need to understand, get the history of where we've been coming from... way too soon to make any judgments."
This district has a school just for grades eight and nine, which is unusual. What are your thoughts on Oceanside West going forward?
"I've been on the job for about six weeks, which have been two-day weeks. One of the things I was most excited about when I came here was to hear about the eight and nine school because as most people in education know, grade nine is a make it or break it year.
"The freshmen academies other districts are coming up with, and the focus on the freshman year throughout the state and country, is because developmentally it's a crucial and critical time. So when I heard that this district had implemented an eight-nine program, I was thrilled. I haven't heard of that in any other district, and I've been around Maine schools a long time.
"The verdict's out of course until you start getting data and start hearing back from the kids. We need to survey the kids if we haven't already done that, because the key to success for students is experience of success.
"If you're a freshman going from a middle school of, say three hundred, to a high school of five or six hundred, which is typical in many districts, if you don't have a good adviser-advisee system in, or a good guidance counselor system in, if those kids don't feel connected and understand how to maneuver in that environment, if they lose traction in their freshman year, there's a lot of data to support the fact that they're gonna drop out and that's not a good thing.
"So I'm excited to hear about eight-nine. It's new, exciting, but I don't know if it's going to work or not. It would make sense that it should bolster the kids."
Why is experience of success so critical?
"Kids need to feel successful all the time. They do. One of the things that I explained to the board when I was hired was how much I believed in the principle of behavioral momentum; a principle that you build success by experiencing it in short and immediate bursts. Most kids who are struggling in school have been struggling for many years.
"I don't know about you, but if I was hitting my head against the same brick wall over and over again, I wouldn't be too thrilled to go experience it the next day.
"Kids in school need to feel that what they are doing is worthwhile and that they're good at it. Particularly in eighth, ninth and 10th grades. Developmentally for students, adolescence is a puzzling and difficult time for many teens, and if you multiply that by the fact that their educational experience is lagging, or they're feeling unsuccessful, or they're having relationships with students that are troubling, or they're being bullied; those kinds of things multiply. Our job as educators is to try to make sure everything's in place so they can feel successful and ultimately be successful."
How do you give that sense to kids who have experienced failures?
"There's a lot of different strategies."
Collins said he was involved in a successful program in Camden, N.J., for tough kids who had never felt success in schools.
"What we were able to provide was on-the-job training and reward for it," he said. "Working toward diploma."
Money was the reward for the kids, who earned paychecks at the end of the week. In one case a student was working with a welder.
"In schools here what we can do, in the absence of having that kind of funding to do on-the-job training, an exciting program like that, is to make sure academically we understand completely where the student's at in terms of achievement level and ability level and provide experiences that give them success as quickly as possible. Not three weeks down the road, but in that first day, and in that second day.
"Reverse the idea that a student comes to school feeling like a loser, and there's ways to do that, but you can't defer that reward for three weeks or three months for a 14-year-old. It's not going to work."
Some administrators have confirmed that history, science and geography are of lesser priority than reading and math. What are your thoughts on that?
"Everything we do in schools is a balancing act from academics to extracurricular, to drama, to music, to art, to reading, to math, to science, to social studies. Everything we do at every different grade is a balancing act of trying to maintain all of the different competing needs of the kids, and the interests.
"Reading is absolutely critical, and being a literate student by grade three and four, as we know from the research, means everything. If you're struggling with literacy in seventh and eighth grade, and you're trying to conquer science and social studies and math, if you don't understand the vocabulary of that, you're going to be struggling on day one. So yeah, I think reading — forget NCLB and their requirement — if we had or didn't have NCLB we'd be saying, 'My goodness, of course it's critical.'"
Can't we have all these subjects without sacrificing any?
"Some kids can, sure.
"Education is highly individualized. Some kids can do all of that, and do sports, and be on the drama team or the debate team. Some kids can.
"Some kids, as I've known from my special ed background, are really stuck in a place of skill acquisition that requires a lot of work. And if we don't spend the time to do that what we're telling the kid is that they can move on and continue to struggle, only we're going to up the ante. We're going to have you struggle not only in acquisition of literacy skills, but we're going to have you struggle in science, math and everything else.
"Some kids can be proficient. The key ingredient I've known in my 27 years in this business is the importance of family. If parents are involved with their kids and with their students, with our students, the chances of success increases, always, always, always. There's never a denominator in there that doesn't fit that equation.
"If parents do not engage with their children about school, help with homework at home, talk about school experiences, encourage academics, encourage a good experience, if that doesn't happen at home, we have at least one of our two hands tied behind our back."
School buildings and consolidation
When it comes to facilities, Collins said the most important thing is that they are safe, secure, up-to-date buildings.
On the one hand, the superintendent said it is financially inefficient to run schools with less than 400 students, but he said he also knows that schools are an important part of the identity for many towns as well as their sense of community.
In addition, some of the smaller schools in the district have better achievement scores than the larger schools. He said a number of factors influence student achievement in terms of test scores including the quality of teachers.
"You can have classrooms of 20-25 with superb teachers that are doing better than classrooms of 10 with a poor teacher," he said. "It was the buzz here for many years that class size was directly related to student performance and the evidence isn't bearing that out."
Asked about the future of Gilford Butler and Owls Head schools, Business Manager Scott Vaitones said both the schools need work. He said the district may eventually build a new school for grades K-4 to serve both South Thomaston and Owls Head.
School choice in the district
Under No Child Left Behind the South School in Rockland has been identified as a continuous improvement (CIPS) school. Parents received a letter from Principal Todd Martin in July saying they could transfer their students to other, better performing schools in the district including Gilford Butler and Owls Head.
In the superintendent's report for September 2012, he writes, "We have transferred third grade teacher Jessica York from South School to first grade teacher at Gilford Butler due to enrollment numbers and CIPS student 'parent choice' requests."
In the same report, he wrote about a change in school choice instituted by the state.
"There is a feature that has been in Maine education law for decades that allows two superintendents to 'agree,' upon request by a parent to allow a child to attend school in a district other than where they reside," Collins wrote. "The regulation requires that both superintendents agree to such an arrangement and that it must be in the 'best interests of the child' and not simply for the convenience or preference of the parent. Parents may appeal a denial to the Commissioner of Education, who may overturn that decision and order the placement as requested by the parent. Historically, commissioners of education have rarely overturned two superintendents and have deferred to the local control of the school district.
"This very 'rare' occurrence is apparently now becoming the norm. At our recent superintendents' regional meeting, I was informed that Commissioner Bowen has made it quite clear that his is a 'school choice' administration and that parental requests to attend other districts will be honored by him if a superintendent denies the original parental request. This new 'activism' on the part of the state, if true, will effectively remove all local control from decisions about residency.
"So, if the parents of a child with extraordinary special needs costing another district $100,000 per year wants to attend RSU 13, the commissioner can, in effect, stick us with the bill for a child that does not reside within our boundaries."
The RSU 13 School Board will meet 6:30 p.m. Sept. 6 at the McLain School. A new teacher reception will be held just before the meeting from 5:45 to 6:30 p.m. On the agenda this week is the Oceanside High School East and West evaluation plans.