The state’s A-F report cards for schools immediately generated buzz, but it died out quickly instead of evolving into sustained conversations about education, according to parents and educators in the region.

Without incentives or penalties attached, the letter grades are supposed to function by giving the public information to use to hold school boards and administrators accountable. When launching the report cards and the Maine Education Data Warehouse, the Department of Education encouraged parents to dig into the data and ask school officials about their plans for improvement.

The grades and data became public in May, with about six weeks of school remaining. At least during the tail end of the school year and the summer, it doesn’t seem that the report cards substantially affected discussions about improving school performance.

“If the intent was to get a lot of parents querying, we have not experienced that,” RSU 54 Superintendent Brent Colbry said. “We’ve been very open in involving parents in the district about the changes we’re making. I don’t think it had any significant effect in telling people what they didn’t already know.”

Gardiner Area High School Principal Chad Kempton said he received more questions about the report card’s methodology than what school staff are doing.

“I had a lot of supportive people calling me saying that basically, don’t worry about it, it’s not a valid measure of the school, the kids and the staff,” he said. “I couldn’t ask for a better response from community members.”

Mary Richards, the grandmother of two children in Winthrop, said she’s heard discussion of the grades among the public school staff she encounters in her work as a Head Start preschool teacher, but not among the general public.

“It doesn’t have too much impact on their lives, especially in summertime,” Richards said. “I think people realize that they don’t tell us everything. They know that from experience with their own children on any given day, taking a certain test.”

Richards, who works for Southern Kennebec Child Development Corporation, will begin teaching at Winthrop’s Head Start program this fall. She hopes the Winthrop Grade School staff won’t rest on their laurels after receiving an A.

Farmingdale mother Tia Adams said the mother’s group at her church talked about the grades when they first came out. Mothers of students at Lillian Parks Hussey Elementary in Augusta were excited about the school’s A, while Adams was surprised that Hall-Dale’s middle and high schools received C’s.

Adams said her family moved to Farmingdale because of the great reputation of Hall-Dale schools, but they later decided to homeschool their children, who are 1 and 3 years old.

“It kind of drove the point home for me that it was all the more reason to do that,” she said.

School is what a person makes of it, so the letter grades may say more about students’ home life than school quality, Adams said.

A-F school grades have been shown to affect property values in Florida, but local real estate agents said homebuyers don’t seem to be paying much attention to them at this point.

“If they do, they do it on a search prior to ever contacting us about locations,” said Diane Garcell, an agent with ERA Webb in Augusta.

RE/MAX agent Chris Vallee, who concentrates on Farmingdale and Hallowell, said people buying there seem neither encouraged by the B for Hall-Dale Elementary nor concerned about the C’s for the Hall-Dale middle and high schools. Instead, buyers are thinking about the relatively new elementary school building and the system’s general positive reputation, he said.

Rep. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, a member of the Legislature’s education committee and a real estate agent, said even a couple who moved this summer from Florida — the first state with an A-F system, dating to 1999 — didn’t ask about school grades.

“As a Realtor, I haven’t had anybody come to me and say, ‘What’s the grade of a school in that district?'” Pouliot said. “It’s so new that it hasn’t caught on yet. If we’re still using it 10 years down the road, it will be more common for Realtors or parents to pay attention.”

Pouliot supports A-F grading, but he has concerns about providing a comprehensive picture of school quality and not stigmatizing schools with large numbers of students who face economic and other challenges.

Pouliot said the report cards added to a valuable discussion about the correlations between poverty and standardized test scores.

“What it really does is shine a light on the areas that we have issues and draws attention to the fact that in those cases, we need to be doing a better job to provide additional resources, maybe support for teachers, to turn that around,” he said.

Cony High School’s C grade got some students talking about what they value other than standardized test scores. The student council prepared their own report card, with high grades for things like diversity and tolerance, athletics and guidance services. The only low grades were C-minuses for student health services and alternative or credit recovery programs.

Rep. Lawrence Lockman, R-Amherst, wrote a disparaging op-ed about the students’ report card and the “silly self-indulgence” he said it represented. Augusta’s three legislators, all Republicans, responded with a letter to the editor praising the students’ serious consideration of the issue.

Cony Principal Kim Silsby also said it was a positive that emerged from the report cards.

“Students being able to analyze what they value as priorities is a good indication of what we do,” she said. “They were able to analyze and evaluate and present a different idea. I liked that piece of it.”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
[email protected]

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