June 13, 2013

Grant to give $1.7 million boost to problem school in Maine

The $1.7 million comes from a federal program designed to be aggressive and show quick results.

By Edward D. Murphy emurphy@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Maine has been awarded $1.7 million under the federal School Improvement Grant program, which will give at least one more school a chance to make changes like the ones Marcia Gendron has led at her school.

click image to enlarge

Tianna Currier, a third-grade student at East End Community School in Portland, writes how she feels about Martin Luther King Jr. in this 2011 file photo. East End School has seen a 34 percent rise in combined math and reading test scores in the past two years, as well as improved attendance, since receiving a federal School Improvement Grant

Derek Davis / Staff Photographer

"It allows the school to really have a restart," said Gendron, the principal at East End Community School on Munjoy Hill, which received $2.7 million in 2011 under the program and is about to enter the third and final year of its transformation effort.

The program is aimed at helping the state's worst-performing schools. To qualify to apply for a grant, a school must be a Title I school – one with a high percentage of low-income families – and be in the bottom 5 percent in performance on a variety of measures, said Samantha Warren, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. High schools that apply must have graduation rates below 60 percent.

Warren said 11 schools in the state qualify this year and will need to apply by the end of business Friday. Because the $1.7 million is about $200,000 less than officials expected, it's likely that only one grant will be awarded.

When the program began, early in the Obama administration, the grants were larger because the funding included economic-stimulus money, she said.

Gendron said the program is designed to be "aggressive" and show results quickly. Schools that receive grants and opt for the most drastic approach to making changes must replace their principals and as much as half of their teaching staffs.

Gendron was principal when the East End school won its grant, but she had been on the job for less than a year so she did not have to be replaced.

Gendron said she and her staff spent a lot of time trying to figure out why their school was rated one of the worst-performing in Maine.

"We tried to get beyond the (test) scores and look at what were the root causes," she said.

One thing they learned, she said, is that children from poor families, who often lack the opportunity to go to preschool, can be weak on long-term memory, which is key for learning math and reading.

Scheduling changes were made to include more time for children to practice those newly learned skills, Gendron said, to help sharpen their memory.

The grant also paid for more rigorous staff development, Gendron said, more technology and a greater emphasis on core learning efforts.

The result, she said, has been a 34 percent rise in combined math and reading test scores in the past two years, improved attendance and a better school climate.

Gendron said the East End school will miss the grant money, which runs out next June, but it has tried to use the grant in a way that leads to more efficient teaching.

She hopes that means when the school returns to its normal budget, the money it has will go farther.

The experience has made Gendron a big fan of the School Improvement Grant program.

"It offers hope to schools that have struggled," she said.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

emurphy@pressherald.com

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