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Angry students confront Romney

Underperforming label is resented

WINCHENDON -- Governor Mitt Romney received a stinging earful yesterday from high school students who were angry that their district was labeled underperforming, and who grilled him about the reasons for his visit.


Students responded with scattered boos as Romney was introduced during an assembly in the Murdock Middle High School gymnasium, which was filled with more than 900 students, parents, teachers, and town leaders.

With a nearby banner proclaiming, "Welcome Governor Romney," one student refused the governor's handshake, and others toted small, handwritten signs of protest, including one that read, "I am the underperformer."

"I proudly booed and yelled `phony,' " junior Sarah Mungeam said. "He didn't come here to help us. He came here to look good for his public relations."

The most dramatic moment came during a question-and-answer session when senior Kim Thurlow escorted sophomore Jeremy Dell -- a severly disabled special-education student from Orange -- to Romney's side at the lectern. Thurlow, a regular-education student who tutors Dell, asked the governor how he thought the teen could pass the MCAS test required for graduation.

"What are these kids going to do? Where are these kids going to go to school?" Thurlow asked, her eyes welling with tears.

Romney shook Dell's hand and walked him and Thurlow back to join other disabled students from a special needs program that draws students from around the region and uses classroom space at Murdock. After greeting some of them, Romney returned to the microphone and said that more than 70 percent of special-education students who remained in the class of 2003 passed the exam.

While some disabled youth will have trouble passing the MCAS test, Romney acknowledged, he said that scrapping the graduation requirement for them would be detrimental. Testing "points out to us where we as a group of old guys responsible for schools have some more work to be done," Romney said. "By testing our students, we're testing ourselves as educators and administrators and even political leaders to see where we are failing."While steadfastly supporting MCAS, Romney has signed legislation easing the process by which special-needs students can appeal failing MCAS and still get a diploma. Romney's two-hour visit to Winchendon was the first one to school districts that the state Board of Education last month declared "underperforming." He will visit Holyoke schools later this month. Critical reports by the Office for Educational Quality and Accountability detailed flat or declining MCAS scores in the districts and questioned their management. The state Department of Education will approve improvement plans that must produce results after two years, or the state may appoint a receiver.

Holyoke and Winchendon are the first two school systems labeled underperforming, ushering in a new stage of a 10-year effort to overhaul public schools. So far, only students have been held responsible for results by having to pass the 10th-grade math and English sections of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test to earn a diploma.

A staunch supporter of MCAS, Romney used his appearance in Winchendon -- which gave him 57 percent of its vote in the 2002 elections -- to offer the state's support in helping turn around the district. He did not mention the word "underperforming" in his speech, instead calling the state's involvement with the district of 2,000 students and three schools a "special partnership."

He also devoted much of his remarks to stressing antidrug and antitobacco messages and pointing out the dangers of teen pregnancy -- a problem in Winchendon.

But many students clamored for more specific commitments of help from the state and called the "underperforming" label embarrassing. They said it is being publicized across the state just as they are applying to college.

"How is he going to help us?" asked senior Kate Davidson, who refused to shake Romney's hand afterward and had a sign saying, "I am a $tatistic." "He didn't touch that issue at all, which made his whole visit pointless."

Senior Liz Crosby agreed. "It's not going to change," she said. "It's always been a struggling community, and he doesn't care until there are headlines in the newspaper and people point at him."

After speaking to students at Murdock, a grade 7-12 school, Romney met with 30 parents and educators, who described issues that affect the town's achievement, such as the high number of foster children placed there by social-service agencies.

Speaking later with reporters, Romney pledged financial help to expand full-day kindergarten for underperforming districts like Winchendon and find alternative ways to educate chronically misbehaving students so they do not disrupt classes. He also backed Superintendent Robert A. O'Meara, who has led the district since August 2002, and voiced confidence that the town will improve.

"A declaration of underperforming says nothing about the kids," Romney said. "It says a lot about the way we as a state and district are managing education."

But, like students, some parents were skeptical about whether state involvement will help.

"I honestly don't think state involvement is going to make a difference," said parent Julie Holly, who is active in her two children's schools. "What's happening in Winchendon is not happening because the state is threatening us."

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