PORTLAND – March 9 is etched in the minds of the principal and teachers at Riverton Community School.

That’s when the federal government named Riverton among the 10 persistently lowest-achieving schools in Maine that receive federal funding for disadvantaged students.

The schools were eligible to apply for a share of $12 million in federal education-reform funding through the Maine Department of Education if they adopted aggressive school-improvement plans. The funding opportunity did little to soften the news.

“It was a horrible blow,” recalled Marydee Stinson, a veteran first-grade teacher. “Our staff works hard. A lot of us were in tears.”

Five months later, Riverton Principal Nancy Kopack and her crew have already started carrying out a three-year, $3.4 million improvement plan that includes intensive staff development and expanded student learning opportunities.

Riverton parents have been invited to learn more about the plan at 5:30 tonight at the school off outer Forest Avenue.

Riverton offered a summer-school program in July that was open to all students and promoted reading, writing, math and science skills. About 100 of the school’s 420 students participated in the four-week, $35,000 program.

Riverton’s teachers have attended two three-day seminars — one last week and one this week — meant to increase their success in teaching students who are learning to speak English and to improve instruction in writing and reading. The seminars cost $203,000.

With students coming back to school in two weeks, the mood among Riverton’s teachers has changed.

“I think we’ve gone from feeling hopeless to feeling hopeful,” said Cindy Soule, a kindergarten teacher. “There was a feeling before that we had to do the best with what we had. We had staff development without any follow-up or (financial) support to make real changes. With this grant, I believe this school can be successful.”

Among the 10 schools that were singled out in March, two others learned last week how much federal money they’ll get over the next three years. Longley Elementary School in Lewiston will get $2 million and Sumner Memorial High School in Sullivan will get $1.7 million.

Four schools that applied for funding are still awaiting decisions: Deer Isle-Stonington High, Carrabec High in North Anson, Lake Region High in Naples and Livermore Falls High. Three schools turned down the money: Houlton High, Hodgdon High and Madison Area High.

Seeing Riverton on the list of struggling schools wasn’t a complete surprise. Riverton’s teachers had tried in recent years to improve annual reading and math assessment scores at a school where 73 percent of students qualify for free or subsidized lunch and 48 percent are learning to speak English.

Still, the percentage of Riverton’s students who scored well on annual assessments was nearly 20 points below the state average during the three-year period targeted by federal education officials.

From 2006-07 through 2008-09, an average of 59 percent of Maine students met or exceeded minimum math and reading standards, according to the data provided by the state education department. At Riverton, an average of about 41 percent of students met or exceeded the standards.

Riverton’s scores showed an overall net improvement of 1.5 percentage points during that three-year period. However, the statewide median improvement rate was about 4.2 percentage points, so Riverton’s modest increase wasn’t enough to keep it off “the list.”

To get off the list, Riverton’s principal and teachers are rethinking everything they do and moving ahead with a plan to overhaul the school’s curriculum and improve the way they use test results to target student instruction.

“We asked ourselves three questions,” said Kopack, the principal. “What do we want children to learn, how do we know they’re learning it and how do we use that information to adjust our instruction so our students can be successful?”

This take-it-from-scratch approach is possible, Kopack said, because the $3.4 million infusion of federal money over three years will allow the school to pay for staff development and instructional programs that normally wouldn’t be possible within Riverton’s usual $1.1 million annual budget.

Kopack and her teachers say they know that money alone won’t improve Riverton’s test scores. They’re also aware that many schools could use the additional funding they’re getting. They say their challenge is to bring real, measurable change to a school that could one day serve as a model for others across Portland and beyond.

“We don’t want the label of being on that list to define us,” said Stinson, the first-grade teacher. “We want to be known for all that we do for kids.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]