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Agreed, Mr. Mayor, a good school system is critical

To the Editor:

Lewiston Mayor Bob Macdonald is right in his view that a good school system is an essential component of Lewiston becoming an economically prosperous community (“Good school system is critical to a successful city,”page 5, Twin City TIMES, March 22, 2012).

I am pleased that the School Committee has given preliminary approval to next year’s budget, which moves us closer to this reality while keeping the school property tax mil rate unchanged.

The budget will not be finalized until after two workshop sessions (March 26 and April 26) with the City Council and Mayor, and we will have ample time to consider further revisions and some of the alternative approaches that the Mayor proposes.

The public is also invited to attend and provide input at the April 9 School Committee meeting and the May 1 City Council meeting, where the budget is scheduled for adoption. Residents will vote on the budget in a May 15 referendum at the Multi-Purpose Center.

Mayor Macdonald suggests that any more school funding is not the answer to improving our school system or to increasing our high school graduation rate. He also proposes replacing ELL (English Language Learner) classes with immersion, requiring non-English adult speakers to attend classes and reevaluating pre-kindergarten classes because without reinforcement at home they are “no more than a babysitting service.”

All these areas were and are slated for discussion with the Council and Mayor, but I would like to respond here to Mayor Macdonald’s specific suggestions, since they were printed in the Twin City TIMES prior to any of the scheduled budget workshop sessions.

First, school funding is a big issue across the state in these challenging economic times. Governor LePage has led the charge to support an increase in school funding in Maine, precisely because he recognizes the relationship between strong support for schools and Maine’s economic prosperity.

Did you know that Lewiston spends less per student on regular classroom instruction than any other school district in Maine? In addition, without a change in law, Lewiston will be penalized beginning in fiscal 2014 for not spending enough of local tax money on schools.

Maine’s support for education also includes funding for ELL teachers. A cut in our ELL program would ultimately result in lower state funding and no savings to the local taxpayers. More importantly, our ELL program is a recognized success story and is graduating students that are both going on to higher education and contributing to Lewiston’s economic prosperity.

We already make extensive use of immersion as 85 percent of our ELL students spend most of their day in mainstream classes. Separate instruction is only used to accelerate a student’s ultimate immersion into the mainstream.

The Mayor rightly notes the importance of reinforcement at home in contributing to a student’s success in school. We know that children from strong home environments have a big leg up on children without that benefit. In fact, children with strong family support may have less need for a pre-kindergarten experience.

Pre-K is a direct response to meeting the needs of children who are not getting the necessary skills at home or in childcare to be successful in school. The research is clear that a pre-K experience is very beneficial to children. They learn their letters, gain socialization skills and learn school expectations and routines. Our kindergarten teachers are unanimous is recognizing that kindergarten children are more ready for learning if they have had a pre-K experience.

I applaud the Mayor’s interest for out-of-the-box thinking to motivate students who are not graduating from high school. Our draft budget includes new innovative ways to better address the needs of these students.  We propose to expand Lewiston Academy to juniors, pilot an alternative education program beginning in middle school and provide settings other than our large high school for students that benefit from smaller or virtual classroom settings.

Finally, I welcome the Mayor’s support for expanding adult education classes for our non-English speakers and would be pleased to give him a tour of our program. Lewiston’s non-English speakers are flocking to our classes, which are scheduled from morning to night. They are, indeed, honored to be in (using the Mayor’s own words) “a land where hard work leads to prosperity – The American Dream.”

Bill Webster

Superintendent of Lewiston Public Schools


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