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.
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.
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.
Today, East End school is also off the list. Math and reading test scores show significant improvement, and the school is experiencing a resurgence under Gendron's leadership, says David Galin, chief academic officer of Portland schools.
Rather than implementing new education programs, Gendron has focused on relationships.
She sets high expectations, engages students and parents and creates a school environment that helps teachers to do their work, say school district officials and staff members.
Gendron's approach is "child-centered," meaning that she runs the school based on what's best for children rather than the staff or the system, says social worker Jane Hubley, who also worked for Gendron at Reiche.
She says Gendron has an unusual ability to see the world through the eyes of young children and create an environment in which they feel secure. If a child is misbehaving, for example, she determines what's threatening the child and changes the environment rather than punishing the child.
"She has that gift. She knows what to do," Hubley says. "She just lives and breathes it. I can't explain it."
Gendron has worked to build relationships between teachers and students and also between the school and the community, says Joshua Chard, a former fifth-grade teacher at the school who now works as an instructional coach.
"Being really good at knowing who our students are -- where they are coming from, what their hopes and dreams and challenges are -- has allowed us to move on to the academic work," he said. "You can't get at the academic work until students feel safe, students feel secure and students feel taken care of."
Most of the school's 410 students come from some of the most racially diverse and poorest neighborhoods in Maine. More than 40 percent have limited English proficiency and 78 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
The school's location -- on a hill in a corner of a peninsula -- isolates it physically from most of the neighborhoods it serves. Few children walk to school.
To connect the school with parents, many of whom do not speak English fluently, Gendron brought the school to the neighborhoods. Every morning, Hubley waits for the bus with parents and children at Kennedy Park and rides the bus to school.
This summer, the school brought its summer reading program to Kennedy Park. Every weekday afternoon during the summer, Hubley and two education technicians spread a blanket under a large tree on Mayo Street and read books to children. Dozens gathered around the blanket every day.
For many immigrant families from Africa, this is what school looks like, Gendron says. The initiative allowed parents to meet her and other school staff in an environment that was welcoming and safe.
Just over 5 feet tall, Gendron is a small woman, with a similarly diminutive voice.
But she is tough and demanding. She has told the staff she won't put up with teachers who are not totally committed. Several teachers did leave, replaced by others Gendron recruited.
She sets high expectations for everyone.
"We wanted the kids to believe they are out to be smart," she said, "and we wanted teachers to believe the kids could be smart, and we wanted parents to believe we could provide a quality learning experience for their children."
She downplayed the school's expeditionary learning focus. Just before she arrived, the school district dismantled the school-within-the-school approach.
She organized the wings according to grade level, a more traditional approach that allowed the school to function more as a community, she says.
In 2010, the lottery system was eliminated, and the school no longer accepts new students from outside the district. That has allowed the school to focus on building relationships and a cultural identity with the East End community, Gendron says.
The approach is paying off. Although test scores are still below city averages, the scores have improved enough to meet federal standards for annual progress.
In 2009, for example, only 17 percent of the school's fourth-graders were proficient in math. Two years later, when those same students were in sixth grade, the percentage of students proficient in math jumped to 37 percent.
Those same students also improved reading scores, with 61 percent proficient in fourth grade and 76 percent proficient in sixth grade.
Just by walking the halls, one can see a dramatic change in the school, says Leah Coplon, who has a son in third grade and a daughter who attended the school from kindergarten through fifth grade.
The atmosphere is less chaotic, she says, and the children seem connected to adults and looked after.
While Gendron has offered a vision, she spent her time initially observing and listening, Coplon said.
"That is what impresses me about Marcia," Coplon says. "She didn't react and start doing stuff. She stayed back and got a feel for our community, our strengths and our needs, and then she went forward making changes that would really last."
Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: