PORTLAND — Riverton Elementary School is one of 10 in Maine eligible for federal grant funding under a new program that seeks aggressive change in the nation’s worst-performing schools.

Riverton could receive up to $2 million annually over the next three years, according to Superintendent of Schools James C. Morse Sr.

Morse began meeting with Riverton school officials this week to discuss Portland’s application, which must include an action plan for turning around student performance. 

“I’m looking at this as very positive,” Morse said. “We’re cash-strapped right now and this is one of our neediest schools.”

The state Department of Education said in a press release that schools with low proficiency rates in math and reading over a three-year period are eligible for the so-called Race to the Top funding, which must be used to develop “an aggressive plan” to turn around the school.

Riverton was identified by the state because it is a Title I school that failed to make progress in accordance with the No Child Left Behind act for more than two years.

Although grants may be used to convert failing schools into charter schools, that is not an option for Maine schools.

Instead, funds may only be used to redesign or replace a school, institute comprehensive reforms, or close the school and transfer students to a higher-performing school.

Comprehensive reforms may include removing principals employed for more than two years, instructional overhauls, increasing learning times and providing extra support for the school.

Morse said he does not plan on removing Riverton Principal Nancy Kopack.

“She’s the right person for the job,” he said. “Staff has a lot of respect for her and she has a lot of respect for the staff.”

Kopack said teachers are equally excited and uncertain about the potential changes, which must be outlined to the state by May 7. 

“The uncertainty is being met with a positive attitude,” Kopack said. “The change we’re going through is unprecedented.”

Morse said the discussion would likely center around increasing instruction time for struggling students, either through longer school hours or summer school.

Those changes, however, would require the support of the teachers union, which Morse said will have a seat at the table throughout the process.

“We’re going to be working closely with them to figure out what we could do that would be dramatically different,” he said. “There are some unions (in the U.S.) that have balked at signing off.”

The Race to the Top program made national headlines two weeks ago, when a Rhode Island school board voted to fire all 93 members of a teachers union that did not agree to extend the school day.

The move was later praised by President Barack Obama.

Meanwhile, school officials in Boston recently asked the staff at six under-performing schools to reapply for their jobs.

Morse, however, said he hopes to avoid similar situations in Portland.

“I suspect the Portland Education Association will partner with us to make sure we have these resources,” he said. “I’m confident they will.”

Union President Kathleen Casasa said the group has a good track record of working with the district. But the union has also noted the developments in other cities.

“There are certainly concerns about what we’ve been seeing across the country,” Casasa said. “At present, I don’t think that is what our district intends to do.”  

Teachers are looking forward to addressing poor student performance, Casasa said, especially since the initiative is tied to funding. Riverton, she said, has high populations of English Language Learners and students form low-income families, which typically require additional learning support.

“The resources are usually available to address student needs,” Casasa said. “Hopefully, this will provide us with a few resource-rich years to turn it around.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]

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