AUGUSTA — Cony students and teachers hoped Education Commissioner Jim Rier would leave their school Wednesday understanding that it’s a better school than it might sometimes appear to those the outside.
Teachers said they’re examining their practices and making big changes for the better. Students praised the commitment and caring of the staff and said the student body forms an accepting community that cheers on everyone’s athletic, academic and artistic endeavors.
Rier visited Cony on Wednesday as part of a tour of schools around the state that improved by at least one letter grade on the school report cards the Department of Education will release on Thursday.
Cony High School improved from a C to a B, and Cony Junior High went from a D to a C.
Students and teachers who met with Rier on Wednesday said the higher grades reflect real improvements happening at Cony, but some of them also pushed back against the report card system.
“We feel that we are so much more than statistics,” senior Morgan Neill said. “We as a whole, as a school, are a community and a family. We care about each other. And that’s why we work so well together.”
The report cards reflect data from the 2012-13 school year. High school grades are based on graduation rates and proficiency and progress on the SAT. For elementary and middle schools, the formula incorporates proficiency and growth shown by individual students on the New England Common Assessment Program tests.
Cony High School improved all around to earn a B. Reading and math proficiency at the junior high were basically flat, but the school made great strides in boosting the performance of students who had scored in the bottom 25 percent the previous year. The points earned for those students’ growth pushed the school into the middle of the range for a C.
Including the two sections of Cony, 93 schools in Maine improved their grade by at least one letter compared to the inaugural round of report cards released last May.
Rier visited schools in Washington County on Monday and in Liberty on Tuesday. He was scheduled to tour schools in Hiram and Gorham on Thursday.
At Cony, Rier sat in on lessons in two junior high classrooms and groups of high school students that were discussing bullying as part of a Diversity Day activity designed by the school’s Civil Rights Team and Gay Straight Alliance.
In a science class, eighth graders studied surface tension by making observations about how many drops of water they could place on a penny before it spilled over the edge.
In an English class, seventh graders matched up sentences from a novel, “Freak the Mighty” with vocabulary words and literary devices they’ve been studying, like stereotype, bias, metaphor and conflict.
Rier said he was struck by the fact that in both classrooms, desks were arranged in clusters so the students could work in groups.
Classrooms were all oriented in one direction, toward the teacher at the front, when Rier was in school, and in his 13 years in finance and administrative roles at the Department of Education he visited classrooms less often than he has since becoming commissioner in February.
“Kids working together — that’s a really interesting, new concept for me,” he said.
Rier said he hopes schools can inspire students to be engaged in their education, and he believes that working cooperatively can do that for many students.
Rier also met with a group of students and the department heads.
“We’re trying to understand the things you’ve been doing to make improvements,” Rier told the department heads.
â€˜WE’RE SHARING MORE’
Several teachers attributed the higher test scores and graduation rates to changes they began making a few years ago after starting a self-review process with the help of the League of Independent Schools.
Wellness department chairman Tom Hinds said the teachers are taking charge of the school rather than following an agenda set by outsiders.
This year Cony dropped its accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, an agency based in Massachusetts. Music department chairwoman Teresa Beaudoin said spending less time on making sure they meet the agency’s guidelines and submitting reports the right way has allowed Cony staff members to focus more on things like effective uses of technology and interventions for students at risk of failing.
English department chairman Tom Wells said teachers are working together more across departments.
“We’re sharing more,” he said. “I used to close the door and do my own thing. I’m not allowed to do that anymore. I was a little resistant at first, but it’s truly empowering and rewarding and energizing to share the wonderful things everyone’s doing in their classrooms.”
Rier said afterward that close interdisciplinary collaboration among teachers has been a theme at improving schools he’s visited.
Wells said he’d like to see writing included in schools’ ratings — it hasn’t been because it’s tested in only three grades — but he doesn’t think the report card represents what Cony is really like and everything he’s proud of at the school.
Neill, a member of the Student Council and the student representative to the school board, said a lot of students complained last year after Cony received a C, saying it didn’t reflect the hard work that teachers and students are putting in. So she surveyed students about how they felt Cony was doing beyond the test scores and graduation rates.
After students told Rier on Wednesday what they like about Cony, Neill said she was glad to hear that most of the reasons — the diversity, the abundance of clubs and sports and most of all the dedication of the teachers and staff — lined up with the areas where the students had given the school good grades on the survey last year.
The students, chosen by Principal Kim Silsby, represented every grade level and included a mix of students who always excelled academically and students who have grown after struggling initially.
Sophomore Tynisha Francois, for example, didn’t have a good eighth grade year, so in ninth grade she entered a guided study program led by the school’s reintegration specialist.
“If I was ever going to slack off, he’d be like, â€˜No, you have to do this. I know you can do it. I’m not going to let you not do your work because you’re feeling lazy,’” Francois said.
Francois said that program and her participation in sports have boosted her grades and kept her out of trouble.
Afterward, Francois said Cony has a lot to be proud of and that teachers, coaches and parents look out for the students there, even if the students aren’t their own. She hoped that would be part of the impression Rier took away from the school.
“I hope he got a good understanding that our staff and our teachers and everyone in this community wants to help,” she said.