Struggling with remote learning, New Vineyard family exercises limited school choice options to improve son’s education
When Katie Buck’s son began to struggle in school, she reached out to his teachers to find out what could be done to help improve his academic record. But after receiving little help from teachers, Buck decided to transfer her son out of the school district in which she resides.
Buck and her son’s father are separated and live in different towns and, more importantly, school districts, allowing them to secure a superintendents’ transfer agreement.
Buck, who lives in New Vineyard, has had primary residency for her son since he was in kindergarten. Prior to kindergarten, her son was a student of the MSAD 58 school district, which covers Phillips, where her son’s father resides.
Buck’s son is now 13-years-old and in middle school. Since kindergarten, he’s been a student of the Mt. Blue school district.
According to Buck, her son’s experience in the Mt. Blue school system had never been smooth. He experienced a lot of change between school years and needed to adjust to the change between the different schools he attended leading to personality and attitude changes.
But Buck and her son’s experience with Mt. Blue schools recently took a turn for the worse.
“The last two years have been horrible while he was in Farmington,” Buck said.
Buck’s son did not adapt well to pandemic-driven remote learning. He started to fall behind in classes like social studies and math. His attitude, Buck said, was not good. He would get frustrated and shut down.
“There were times when he would just slam the computer down and say ‘I don’t understand what I’m doing,’” Buck described.
Buck said she, her son’s father, and step-mother all tried to reach out to teachers at Mt. Blue to find out what they could do to help him improve his grades. They wanted to know whether there were additional materials teachers could send home for extra practice, or whether Mt. Blue offered after-school programs or additional classes.
But according to Buck, the response they received was the same every time: Other students are in the same situation as you. We can’t give one student our undivided attention.
In some cases, Buck said she still hasn’t received a response from her son’s former teachers.
“Math, in particular, that was one class I know we still haven’t gotten responses in. He was failing hard,” she said.
That was what made Buck decide to take her son out of the Mt. Blue school district.
“I just wasn’t going to set my son up to fail,” she said.
Buck and her son’s father decided to try and secure a superintendents’ agreement, which would allow her son to attend school in Phillips, where his father lives.
Under Maine law, students are required to attend school in the school administrative unit (SAU) either where their parent or guardian resides, or where, if the student is over the age of 18 or an emancipated minor, they reside.
Superintendents’ agreements are an exception to the law. A superintendents’ agreement allows a student to transfer to a SAU other than the one in which they reside. Transfers can only occur between public schools and require the approval of the superintendent of the SAU to which the student is transferring, the approval of the superintendent of the SAU from which the student is transferring, and the approval of a parent or guardian if the student is underage.
In Buck’s case, that process didn’t happen without some pushback.
Buck reached out to the superintendent of the Mt. Blue school district to find out what she needed to do to have her son transferred to Phillips.
She said the principal of her son’s school at Mt. Blue then reached out to her on his personal phone to try and assure her that her son’s experience in the past year wouldn’t be the same moving forward. According to Buck, they offered to have teachers work with her son after school.
“They didn’t do that last year. With all the extra funding they had, I felt they should have done that,” Buck said.
Buck was undeterred and pressed forward with the transfer request. Ultimately, both superintendents agreed to allow Buck’s son to be transferred, with the condition that she assure responsibility for transporting her son to Phillips for school every day.
Since transferring schools, Buck’s son has changed for the better.
“He’s at the top of his class now, especially in math. He went from failing to being an A student in all his classes, just about,” Buck said.
And the positive changes Buck has seen in her son go beyond his academic record. Buck says he’s excited not just to go to school, but to participate in extracurricular activities.
“He likes to play sports. And that was the other big factor. He didn’t even want to go and try out in Farmington. He didn’t think he would make it. He didn’t have confidence.”
Now, Buck says her son is a “well-rounded child.”
Though Buck’s son initially began the school year learning in-person, an outbreak of COVID-19 resulted in his small class being sent home to quarantine. But remote learning in a different school district hasn’t presented the same challenges.
“My child was here doing remote learning but he was still getting what he needed from his teachers,” Buck said.
In general, Buck described her son’s teachers in Phillips as very active.
“They make sure if I’m not aware of something they email me, and I never got this before. And I was a very active parent,” said Buck. “They care. They want to see him succeed.”
But the positive impact changing school districts had on her son’s quality of education could have easily been derailed if either of the superintendents involved in the transfer had declined Buck’s request.
Had that happened, Buck says she likely would have homeschooled her son.
“I just wanted him to succeed. I didn’t want him to fail. That was my biggest concern going into this school year,” she said.
Just under 2% of students enrolled in public schools across the state have a superintendents’ agreement. About 99% of superintendents agreements are approved at the local level. As of the 2020-2021 school year, the most recent year for which data is available, 3,474 students across the state had a superintendents’ transfer agreement; 3,453 of these were approved at the local level.
The roughly 0.5% of students whose transfer request is denied at the local level do have recourse: the decision can be appealed to the Department of Education’s (DOE) commissioner.
According to data provided by the DOE, for the 2020-2021 school year, approximately 12% of appeals made to the commissioner were ultimately approved. That number is significantly lower than a few years ago. During the 2018-2019 school year, just under 66% of transfer requests that were initially denied but then appealed to the DOE commissioner were approved. Three years earlier, during the 2015-2016 school year, just over 84% of denied requests were overturned following an appeal.
Those numbers do not necessarily reflect the true number of requests that were denied, only the number of requests that were denied and appealed. School districts are not required to report that information to the state.
Superintendents’ transfer requests have been a source of controversy in the past. In 2016, the DOE handled a large number of requests to review denied transfers and found the letters provided to parents by superintendents were missing a determination of why the request found a transfer wasn’t in the student’s best interest.
Providing that information is required by a law that went into effect in 2013, without the signature of then-Governor Paul LePage. In 2012, the rate at which Stephen Bowen, then the DOE commissioner, overturned transfer requests denied by superintendents drew criticism from school districts. According to a Bangor Daily News article written in September 2012, superintendents accused Bowen of “destroying local control” and worried about the cost the approved requests could add to school systems.
A spokesperson for the DOE responded to criticism by saying that Bowen’s approach put the emphasis on school districts to show a transfer would not be in the best interest of a student, a change from previous approaches which put the emphasis of proving a transfer was in a child’s best interest on parents.
In Buck’s case, both the superintendent of the Phillips and Mt. Blue school districts agreed a transfer was in her son’s best interest. But Buck says she’s not alone in her situation and she knows a lot of people in the area where she lives who feel they would benefit from having greater choice in the school their child attends.
“I’ve had conversations with a lot of people I know who say, ‘That’s awesome. I wish I could do that,’” said Buck. “This could help a lot of people I know.”
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