PORTLAND – School officials are taking a more aggressive approach to improving students’ performance at Riverton Elementary School in the midst of a three-year, $3.4 million overhaul funded by the federal government.

During the first year, ending June 30, the district followed a less aggressive “transformation model,” which called for significant educational program changes and intensive teacher training but didn’t require staff changes.

As the school heads into the second year of its improvement grant, the district has switched to the “turnaround model,” which calls for replacement of the principal and as much as half of the teaching staff.

“The progress hasn’t been as dramatic as we would like,” said Superintendent Jim Morse. “We need to change the school culture further and bring fresh eyes to the challenges that we face.”

The move to a turnaround model follows the resignation in February of Riverton Principal Nancy Kopack, who decided to leave for personal reasons and will serve in the position through June.

Under the turnaround model, Riverton must replace 14 of 28 teachers within the first two years of the grant, said David Galin, chief academic officer for Portland schools. Five teachers are new to Riverton this year, which means nine teachers must be transferred to other Portland schools in 2011-12.

In a process coordinated with the teachers union, nine Riverton teachers responded to the superintendent’s request for volunteers to be transferred to the Ocean Avenue, East End, Reiche and Hall elementary schools, Galin said.

Teachers volunteered to leave Riverton for various reason, he said.

“All of them are dedicated teachers and many of them are at different stages in their careers,” Galin said. “But at Riverton now, staff cannot do what they’ve always done. They are going to work in a different way. We have been clear about that. The level of accountability, focus and monitoring by the district is intense. Teachers who chose to stay are incredibly dedicated to Riverton students and the Riverton community.”

The district initially was able to avoid the more drastic turnaround model because Kopack had been principal for less than three years when Riverton got the school improvement grant.

Kopack became acting principal of Riverton in September 2007, and the position was made permanent in 2008. She has worked in Portland schools for more than 20 years, starting at Riverton as a teacher in 1991 and becoming assistant principal in 2005.

Candidates for the Riverton principal’s position are being interviewed through this week. Finalists will have second interviews today. Morse plans to appoint Kopack’s replacement at the school board meeting June 7.

Kopack and her staff learned in March 2010 that the Maine Department of Education had listed Riverton among 10 persistently low-performing schools that receive federal Title I funding for disadvantaged students. The listing made Riverton eligible for a federal school improvement grant.

Seventy-three percent of Riverton’s 420 students qualify for free or subsidized lunches, and nearly half live in homes where English isn’t the primary language. The percentage of Riverton students who scored well on annual math and reading tests was nearly 20 points below the state average during the three-year period targeted by federal officials.

Portland’s East End Community School is in line for a similar school improvement grant this year. But with a new principal and significant staff turnover this year, only two or three teachers will be transferred in the coming year, Galin said.

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

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