Setting the record straight on Oceanside West
For more than a month, we have been questioned in our reporting of the failure rates for eighth-grade students at the Oceanside West High School in the 2011-2012 school year.
In any situation where a story of ours is called into question, it is our job and our desire to correct the record, but it is also important for the person asking for the correction to provide us the correct information we need to do so.
In the case of grades at Oceanside West, we finally had to send a written request for information under the Maine Freedom of Access Statute to the Regional School Unit 13 central office to get the data we needed and we are presenting it on the front page of this edition of The Courier-Gazette.
In July we reported that 52 percent of the grade eight students at Oceanside West had failed at least one course in the second quarter of the 2011-2012 school year. We also wrote an editorial on the issue.
The exact same figure had previously been reported in the St. George town newsletter in the July-August 2012 edition. It had been provided by the town education committee. When we talked to members of the committee, we were presented not with mere anecdotal data, but with columns of figures listing numbers of students passing and failing courses, just like the ones you see in our front page story.
Don Choquette, a former school board member, told us he got the information from Lawrence Schooley, the principal at Oceanside West.
We understood that St. George has been opposed to sending its kids to the Oceanside West school, a situation caused by the consolidation of Maine School Administrative Districts 5 and 50. So, before we went to print with the story, we contacted Schooley and attempted to get the information we needed to confirm the story.
The reporters who worked on the story noted that he was not very helpful in providing information, so we reported what was being said in St. George as part of a story about the St. George education committee.
After the story was published, Schooley called the newspaper and complained not that the figures were wrong, but only that we did not state clearly in the editorial that the information was for only one quarter, the second quarter. In good faith, we published a clarification making that clear.
While we had him on the phone, we asked for the grades for all four quarters of the school year and he said the end of the year results were not available due to the fact that students were making up some of these courses in summer school. This irked us because we knew for a fact that this was late July and they had given out report cards to students at the end of the year.
In August, Schooley asked us to publish a guest column explaining the grades. We welcomed this, but noticed that his column suddenly changed the way the information was presented. Now instead of talking about students failing one class or more per quarter, it was presented as out of 1,280 final grades given out, 125 or 9.7 percent were failing.
Some made comments on the story online thanking Schooley for clearing things up, and criticizing the newspaper's reporting. However, it seemed to us that the waters had just grown muddier.
On Sept. 6, Schooley and Oceanside East Principal Tom Forti presented the Oceanside High School Evaluation Plan to the school board. By this point, the grades had changed again slightly. Now, out of 1,280 final grades given, 10.5 percent were failing.
By this point we had sent our freedom of access letter requesting information from the RSU 13 central office because it was clear the record needed to be set straight.
The attitude in Rockland among school officials has been dismissive. The message was, this is just St. George complaining and making trouble because they don't like the consolidation, but our attitude in the newsroom cannot simply be, "St. George doesn't count."
To the credit of new incoming Superintendent Lew Collins, he responded by providing this information to us.
Looking at the most recent data provided by the school district, the number has gone from 52 percent of students failing at least one course to 38 percent for that controversial second quarter. It was 45 percent in the first quarter and 31 percent in the last.
So the information we reported from St. George in July must have been wrong.
Some questions still remain for us. While we're willing to say this new data is the newest and the best, we still wonder where Choquette and the education committee came up with their figures. Looking at the documents and sheets of numbers they provided, it seems unlikely they just fabricated the whole thing, but they could have made a mistake. We also don't know if the school has changed the way it reports this data.
For example, if it was really 38 percent failing one or more courses in the second quarter rather than 52 percent all along, why didn't Schooley just say so when he called in the correction or again in his guest column?
The school district would have had a stronger case that the original story was just wrong had they said so from the beginning and released this data we have for you today back in July when we first asked for it, rather than changing the way it was presented to make it more confusing and look better.
Schooley could have given us the data we have today before we ever went to press with the original story. We asked for it, and he chose to make us investigate further without his help.
Our mistake was not filing the written request for information right from the beginning. For too long we tried to get the district to provide the "apples-to-apples" information voluntarily.
At this point, we feel satisfied we have exhausted every avenue available to us to set the record straight.
With new leadership in the school, we hope in the future the district will work more cooperatively with the newspaper to provide parents and taxpayers in the community with the information they need and find interesting.
Director of School Improvement Neal Guyer, who served as interim superintendent before Collins was hired, told the school board at its Sept. 6 board meeting in presenting the Oceanside Evaluation Plan:
"Transparency is laudable. It's also risky. You know, this puts a lot of information out there, but we feel it's important to be transparent, but transparency for transparency sake isn't really what we're after here."
We feel there's more of a risk when things are not transparent. When people have only limited information, wrong information, confusing information or are simply denied access to information, they can draw the wrong conclusions.
Aside from that, finding out the failure rates is only the first step. The data we have today shows that 14 students in the eighth grade last year were failing four or more subjects at the end of the year. What caused that? Problems at home? Distractions from video games, Internet and TV? A feeling that education isn't important? A sense that they couldn't succeed even if they tried harder?
Those factors are all as important to consider as how the teachers and administrators are doing their jobs, so even when the numbers aren't so great, district employees should not feel it's risky to share them with us.
We look forward to seeing this discussion continue.