WATERVILLE — As the Maranacook Community High School Jazz Band played “Play That Funky Music,” students from Pittston Consolidated School explained what they discovered in an experiment about which type of salt melts ice fastest.
Elsewhere in the student center at Thomas College, visitors used laptops to move a computer-generated person through a virtual space resembling Mount View High School in Thorndike, an award-winning part of Unity-based Regional School Unit 3’s home-based adult education program.
Rep. Larry Dunphy, R-Embden, was marveling at the robots built and programmed by Messalonskee High School’s robotics team. He said afterward that he was impressed by the students’ leadership and technical skills.
“They’re bright, they’re articulate, and they’re engaged,” Dunphy said. “What more could you ask for?”
Fostering the sort of enthusiasm that Dunphy showed was one of the goals of an event on Friday designed to showcase “great things” happening in central Maine’s public schools, from preschool to adult education.
“We thought it was about time to put some emphasis on the positive things happening in public schools across the state,” said Heather Perry, superintendent of RSU 3 and president of the Kennebec Valley Superintendents Association, which organized Friday’s event.
For Perry, the event was also a counterpoint to comments from Gov. Paul LePage, who has come under fire for statements about Maine’s public schools and its students. LePage drew criticism last year when he said at an event to unveil new education proposals, “I don’t care where you go in this country — if you come from Maine, you’re looked down upon.”
The association invited state policymakers to attend and view interactive displays set up by teachers and students from more than a dozen school districts. Several legislators attended, along with members of the State Board of Education and a handful of officials from the Department of Education, including Chief Academic Officer Rachelle Tome.
No one from the governor’s office attended, though organizers said they extended the invitation.
Perry said area superintendents decided to organize the showcase after a breakfast meeting with legislators in January, at which they discussed the state budget and education-related legislation for the session. Legislators wanted to hear more about achievements of schools, rather than just concerns about school funding or the negative impact of state policies, Perry said.
School officials said they also wanted to counteract what they perceive as a negative tone in discussions about education policy and public schools, both in Maine and nationally.
“There has been a lot of criticism about public schools,” said Pat Hopkins, superintendent of Gardiner-based RSU 11. “We hope that people see that while there is room for improvement and growth, there’s a lot going on that’s very positive.”
Students from Carrabec High School in North Anson touted improvements made since the school received a $726,800 School Improvement Grant in 2010 to raise SAT scores.
Elliot Gorr, a senior from New Portland, said Carrabec didn’t have any Advanced Placement classes, but now there are seven available. He’s taken five and appreciates their rigor and the chance to earn college credit.
Chantal Diamond, a senior from North Anson, talked with people on Friday about a program called Advancement Via Individual Determination, which she said taught her organization and studying skills that raised her from a middling student to one earning As and Bs in honors and AP courses.
“I hope they come away knowing that our school has improved majorly because of the help we’ve received,” Diamond said.
Students from Augusta’s Cony High School talked about the value of sports, clubs and other activities.
Cony senior Brett MacFarland — president of the art and photography clubs, a member of the National Honor Society, Key Club, the newspaper staff and the volleyball team — said it’s sad that activities are so often cut when school budgets are tight.
MacFarland said cutting activities could hurt students more than anything else because the students are passionate about them and learn important skills from participating.
“Being involved in any extracurricular activity, it helps with time management,” she said. “The busier you are, you kind of are forced to create a schedule, and it helps you stay on top of that.”
Rep. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, a member of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, said that even though he was able to stay only briefly, he learned about Cony’s significant progress on the SAT this year and heard positive feedback from a teacher about the Common Core State Standards, nationwide curriculum standards that could face repeal in Maine through a citizens initiative planned by opponents.
“Overall, it’s encouraging to participate in these things and to see that we have some of the best schools in the country, right here in Maine,” Pouliot said. “We have great administrators and really hardworking students.”
Pouliot said criticism of public schools stems from a desire for reforms to address real problems in education, such as the fact that fewer than half of Maine high school juniors perform well enough on the SAT to be deemed “proficient.”
“I don’t think that the stick approach works, I don’t think shaming people works, but some people do,” Pouliot said. “I think that in some cases you do have a negative tone around education right now, and a lot of that is that we’re trying to make changes. … We need to do that with the faculty and administrators on board.”