PORTLAND – With a grimace, East End Community School Principal Marcia Gendron held up the school’s report card, a bold “F” dominating the top right corner. Immediately, the gathering of about 40 teachers erupted in murmurs, gasps and a vocal “Oh my!”
“It’s a big old F,” Gendron said, breaking the news to teachers in the cafeteria Wednesday after school let out for the day.
It’s a grade that Gendron and the teachers believe is unfair, given the significant rise in students’ math and reading scores at the school – 20 percentage points in the last three years — which serves a largely poor and immigrant community on Portland’s Munjoy Hill.
More than 40 percent of the students are English language learners and more than 75 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
“You know the work that we’ve done,” Gendron said confidently to the teachers. “Keep that in mind.”
One of the hardest things about the grade is the stigma, teachers said.
“Its very deflating when we as a staff know how incredibly hard — and smart — we work here,” said Susie Winslow, a literacy and math support teacher. “I feel blindsided.”
Winslow has worked at the school since it opened in 2006, and has taught for 27 years.
Since Gendron took over as principal, the school’s math and reading test scores have improved significantly and East End has come off the state’s list of persistently low-performing schools.
“We like who we are and we’re never going to be apologists,” she said. “It’s been a turnaround school on many levels and parents know that too.”
Gendron, in particular, is seen as a turnaround expert in Portland schools.
Before joining East End Community School two years ago, she oversaw a turnaround at Reiche Elementary School, which in 2003 and 2004 was listed by the federal government as “persistently low achieving.” It has stayed off that list since.
On Wednesday, Reiche got a D from the state.
Gendron and several teachers talked about how they already focus closely on how to improve the school and its students’ achievement. They have already started the conversation that the governor and education commissioner have said they hope the report cards will spark.
“As a teacher, we know we are much more than just one test score,” said Nancy Smith, a fifth-grade teacher. “We are a group of dedicated professionals. And one score is not reflective of any one person and any one institution.”
Several teachers said during a discussion that the F would hurt some of their efforts to create a robust school community. The school, for example, has teachers greet students at the door, ride on the buses with children, hold daily reading groups in city parks during the summer and provide special “Rise and Shine” early-morning sessions for students.
“One of the things we’ve had to work on is creating a culture of success,” Gendron said. “We tell the kids, ‘You can be successful and we can find that pathway.’ Now we’ve just been told, ‘No, you’re a failure.’”
“It’s one letter grade. I think that is reckless,” Gendron said. “Who is the F for? Is it the school? Is it me? Is it the teachers? The students? Who’s the failure?”
Gendron and the teachers also discussed how to explain the grade to parents and students who have questions. Gendron said she planned to send a letter to parents and hold a “talking tour” with parents at school events.
Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk released a statement Wednesday that criticized the methodology of the grading system.
“This entire school grading system is built around a political agenda, not a commitment to educational improvement,” he wrote. “It is ironic that at the same time that the state cuts funding and imposes added costs on school districts, it implements a system designed to shame schools, not help them.”
Marilyn Melton, a fifth-grade teacher, said she knew exactly what she would say to a student: “I’d ask them, ‘Are you working hard? Are you doing your best?’ End of story. No one here gets an F in that.”
Gendron encouraged her staff to take pride in the work they do.
“There is no way this school can be adequately described as an F school,” Gendron said. “But there’s this stigma now. Are we going to allow this to define us? That’s up to us.”
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: