November 26, 2012

At East End school, improvement a matter of principal

Marcia Gendron turns a low-achieving school around by focusing on building relationships.

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - Marcia Gendron greets her students at the front doors of East End Community School on Munjoy Hill. She calls each child by name and doles out hugs to a few who stop to chat. Other teachers also greet the children, who are excited to be here.

click image to enlarge

Marcia Gendron, principal of East End Community School in Portland, gets a hug from third-grader Maureen Fitzgerald at the start of a school day. Most of the 410 students come from racially diverse and poor neighborhoods.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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And why not?

While Gendron has ramped up the academic workload, it comes with an "eat dessert first" strategy. As soon as they arrive, students start the day with activities such as Zumba dance, chess, lacrosse, garden club, theater, music, cartooning and stop-action animation. Teachers and community members lead the classes.

The "Rise and Shine" program takes place each day from 8:15 to 8:50 a.m. and has helped students become more engaged, motivated and able to connect with adults, Gendron says.

It is part of a larger effort to turn around a school that had been among the lowest-achieving schools in the state. Gendron says children can only learn when they have established relationships with caring adults. Before she became principal here two years ago, the students seemed detached and disengaged, she says.

"Before, it was just numbers moving through the hall," she said.

The tactic has paid off: Since Gendron took over, the school's math and reading test scores have improved significantly and the school has come off the state's list of persistently low-performing schools.

There were high hopes when East End school opened in 2006, the city's first new school in 30 years. The $12.1 million building won multiple awards for its green design -- its roof, for example, is covered with soil and alpine plants to absorb and filter rainwater.

The school was built with three classroom wings, each designed as an autonomous unit, with classrooms for children in kindergarten though grade five. A teacher-leader would oversee each wing.

At the time, school officials anticipated that the new school would attract students from across the city because it focused on a hands-on style of instruction called expeditionary learning. Officials set up a lottery system to manage out-of-district enrollment and children bused from all over the city. At one point, a quarter of its students lived outside the East End.

The school is situated in one of the poorest sections of the city, serving the Kennedy Park public housing project, and school officials hoped that an innovative approach to instruction would attract middle-class children from off the peninsula and lower the percentage of poor and immigrant children.

The plan did not work. Expert consultants trained teachers on expeditionary learning, but failed to give enough attention to core subjects like math and reading, Gendron said.

The school lacked a shared sense of community. It was disconnected from East End neighborhoods and teachers suffered from "initiative fatigue."

Student test scores in reading and math were well below state average after the school opened, and scores showed little improvement as the years went on. In 2009, only 17 percent of the school's fourth-graders and 23 percent of its fifth-graders were proficient in math, according to the New England Common Assessment Program test.

Disappointed parents began sending their children to other schools. Carol Dayn, the school's principal, resigned in June 2010.

District officials then chose Gendron, who had overseen a similar turnaround at Reiche Community School, which in 2003 and 2004 had been listed by the federal government as a "persistently low-achieving school." It has remained off that list since.

In April 2011, East End Community School found itself on the same list, based on the results of tests taken in October 2008, 2009 and 2010. The school was one of only four in Maine in 2011 to be awarded federal money under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The school received $2.7 million over three years.

(Continued on page 2)

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