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
Staff Writer

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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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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.

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