SOUTH PORTLAND — The James O. Kaler Elementary School received a $1.6 million grant from the Maine Department of Education, Superintendent of Schools Suzanne Godin announced Monday. 

The school improvement grant will fund ongoing efforts to improve student achievement in literacy and math over the next three years, with the major goal of all students reading on grade level by the end of third grade.

“I do believe the work ahead, while rigorous, will make a difference for the students at Kaler,” Godin told the School Board at their meeting Monday.

Kaler, a school on South Kelsey Street serving 231 students from kindergarten through fifth grade, was flagged for this funding last year when the school earned an “F” on the state’s first public school report card, based on standardized test scores.

The school also received a “failing” grade this year. According to a release from the DOE, less than 40 percent of Kaler’s students graded proficient in math and 44 percent were proficient in reading.

Godin has suggested the school’s low performance is also impossible to divorce from the student body’s socio-economic status, which the grades do not consider. More than half of Kaler’s students are eligible for free and reduced school lunches, and the school has a high percentage of students for whom English is a second language. 

Problems at Kaler were far from breaking news to Godin or Principal Diane Lang when they first received the grade last year.

For the past five years, Godin said in a prior interview Kaler’s renewal plan has been bolstering student achievement by introducing more project-based learning and starting the school day 15 minutes earlier, at 8:45 a.m., for a community breakfast in classrooms. They also have extended the school year for a limited number of students not meeting proficiency levels. 

But those improvements cost money, and thus far, she said, the school’s good faith efforts have gone underfunded.

Godin believes the $1.6 million grant will give Kaler the boost it needs to fully execute the improvement plans already partially in place.

For example, the grant will fund teacher salaries for even earlier school day, which starting next year will begin at 8 a.m. and end at 3 p.m. for all students. 

The grant will also fund an expansion of the extended school year program of up to eight weeks for underperforming students. Godin said she hopes up to 80 students can benefit from the grant resources this summer. 

The major focus of the grant money will be on strengthening instruction at Kaler. A math coach and a literacy coach will embed with teachers to assist and train them in best practices in those subjects, and an additional four ed techs will support students and teachers in the classroom. 

Several iPads will also be distributed in classrooms with apps to track student progress for those not meeting reading or math proficiency. A data coordinator will be hired to assure the data collected with the iPads and otherwise is monitored and responded to effectively.

Students at the middle school and high school have iPads, but Godin said this program is the first “where the iPad is used to actually target student needs.”

The grant will also fund extra support for students and their families, with Spurwink case management and Sweetser social work services on-site.

Godin has said support for student mental health and behavior is often overlooked, and she hopes the grant will build a community resource center in the school that “can be the bridge between the school and the parents.”

The grant application also required that the school remove its principal. Godin announced in May that Lang would switch positions with Small Elementary School Principal Bonnie Hicks, a move that concerned parents from both schools. Both schools formed transition teams to ease the swap.  

Angela Tinkham, president of the Kaler Parent Teacher Association, was one of many Kaler parents disappointed to lose Lang, but was “ecstatic” for the resources the grant will provide. 

Sometimes, she said, “change is good. You never know what another person’s going to bring to the table.”

Now that there is less “fear of the unknown,” she said, “The general consensus is that parents are starting to feel better and get excited about it.”

Kaler was one of 13 schools eligible for the grant funding this year, and one of four that applied.   

Godin applauded the work of Kaler’s staff, and is hopeful for the school’s success. 

“We are excited to be recipients of this grant and believe the resources included over the next three years will help the Kaler School community increase student achievement,” she said in the DOE release. 

 Shelby Carignan can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @shelbycarignan.

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