An effort to revamp Kaler Elementary School, where students have recorded inconsistent performance in math and science scores, is under way in South Portland.

The concept calls for establishing an experience-based curriculum in the 2011-12 school year. At Kaler, 58 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and 28 percent are enrolled in special education.

A framework committee comprising staff members, parents, administrators and students decided on that approach after working for several months with a facilitator. Another, larger panel will work out the details of the proposal for the Board of Education to vote on in May or June.

Principal Diane Lang said the school has not always been able to meet state standards — a target that moves upward to hit 100 percent proficiency in reading and math in 2014, in compliance with federal requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act.

“The past few years, we’ve been pretty consistent. Sometimes we move, but not enough,” Lang said. “We need to be consistent with that slope going up.”

In the New England Common Assessment Program tests administered last fall, a much larger percentage of Kaler students scored in the “partially proficient” and “substantially below proficient” categories for reading and math than the district as a whole.

Fifty-four percent of the school’s fifth-graders were not proficient in reading and 62 percent were not proficient in math, compared with 22 percent and 37 percent districtwide. Kaler fifth-graders had a higher proportion of students in the nonproficient categories than third- and fourth-graders.

Kaler scores have remained fairly level despite efforts such as tutoring and a program to increase reading skills, Lang said. It was clear that a dramatic shift, rather than additional small changes, were needed to renew Kaler, she said.

The school’s situation is different from that of Skillin Elementary, where repeat instances of failing to meet state targets required the school to carry out a plan to improve scores.

In experience-based schools, students explore a topic or theme — examples include butterflies and the world of work — through an interdisciplinary approach. They work in groups and with experts and present their findings.

“It engages a different kind of student. It’s a little less tradition, a little more hands-on,” said Ralph Baxter Jr., chairman of the Board of Education.

Some ideas for an experience-based curriculum at Kaler include mentoring, flexible hours and having the school serve as a community center. Because the school is typically underenrolled, students who live in other elementary school districts could choose to attend Kaler.

Karen Verdelli, a Kaler parent who served on the framework committee, said she believes experienced-based learning has a lot of benefits. An education technician in Portland, Verdelli thinks the hands-on approach is effective for many students. But she is concerned that the school may end up with too much of an emphasis on science and technology and extended hours that give students less time to participate in activities.

“I think pieces of it can be a good fit for Kaler,” she said.

School officials will soon put together the second Kaler committee, which will meet twice a month starting after the February break. Parents will be sent a letter in the near future explaining how the committee will work.

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at:

[email protected]