SOUTH PORTLAND – Less than 24 hours after Gov. Paul LePage and his education commissioner, Stephen Bowen, unveiled the inaugural list of letter grades for Maine public schools last week, South Portland third-grader Elijah Sinclair stood in line to sign what can only be described as sympathy cards.
Sinclair and other students then distributed the cards to teachers at Kaler School of Inquiry and Exploration, which was given an F by the state.
“I don’t think my school is a failure,” said Sinclair, later that evening, as he gave guided tours of his school during “Kalerbration,” a semi-regular after-school event during which students show off their work.
Parents and teachers and administrators at Kaler for the event all echoed the same opinion, that the F grade is not a true reflection of the school’s accomplishments and culture, especially since 2011, when it launched a “renewal project” aimed at turning the tide on low test scores.
“I am very upset at the process the state is going through,” said Principal Diane Lang. “However, the data that created our grade is accurate, but we’ve know that for years. We’ve already analyzed that data and done a lot of work on our renewal project.
“The reality is, we do need to improve, but we know that and we are doing that,” said Lang. “But calling us that letter, that’s not motivating. If anything, it’s de-motivating. It does not help us.”
Lang’s largest issue, and it’s a critique echoed by educators statewide, is that the grades are based solely on the New England Common Assessment Program, a test given each fall to measure the retention of information from the previous school year. The state grade rests half on the actual scores in reading and math on that test, taken last October, and half on student growth over the previous year. The growth measure is further weighted to factor test scores schoolwide and those of the bottom 25 percent of performers. On a possible score of 400 points, Kaler received 169.3 points.
It was the seventh-worst cumulative score of all 422 schools measured in Maine that house grades 3-8.
In its attack on LePage’s education policy, the Maine Education Association pointed out the close correlation of letter grades to economic vitality. All schools in Cape Elizabeth, for instance, scored an A, as did both the high school and middle school in Scarborough.
The same pattern held true even within South Portland. Dyer Elementary, where just 20 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, got an A. Meanwhile, Kaler has the highest number of “economically disadvantaged” students, at 58 percent.
More tellingly, Lang said, as many 36 percent of Kaler kids are special education students on Individual Education Plans. To be assigned an IEP, Lang said, students must typically be performing two grades levels behind their peers.
“Our lowest 25 percent are going to be IEP kids. So, we’re kind of getting double-slapped there,” she said.
Superintendent Suzanne Godin said Monday that South Portland could solve both its state grade and local budget problems simply by closing schools.
“If South Portland were to have fewer elementary schools, you would see more of a balancing of need and achievement across the district,” she said.
However, that option is not on the table because the South Portland Board of Education, along with a strong majority of parents in the city, favor the small, community school approach. Godin also points out the idea is a non-starter because it would require construction, with remaining schools not big enough to absorb the population of any one that might be closed.
Some parents say moving students is simply not a successful strategy, regardless.
In 2011, Kaler landed on a federal list as a Continuing Improvement Priority School for failing to meet “adequate yearly progress” toward federal education goals. As such, Kaler parents had to be given the option to withdraw their students for enrollment in other city schools. About 40 did so, while another 20 children simply disappeared from the district, dropping enrollment at the pre-K through Grade 5 school to 176.
One parent who moved her children in 2011 was Amba Cole. But, after one year at what is, according to the state, South Portland’s top elementary school, she came back.
“I was one of the more vocal parents to pull my kids out and it was a big mistake,” said Cole.
Cole said her two sons seemed to get “lost in the shuffle” at Dyer, with her youngest eventually missing one day per week, largely, she surmises, from being unhappy.
As part of its renewal, Kaler in 2011 launched an initiative in “project-based learning,” a curriculum that calls for hands-on study to train students in critical thinking skills by getting them to apply several disciplines to one goal.
This year, Cole was one of 14 families to return to Kaler, partly because of project-based learning.
“My 9-year-old is just completely enthralled with it. He loves it,” she said. “It’s really interactive and they get excited about it. The teachers are really pulling them in and they’re not getting bored.
“They both come home and want to talk about the project they’re working on,” said Cole. “Whereas before, when I’d ask, ‘What did you do at school today?’ it was always, ‘Nothing.’
“That’s’ why we took on PBL [project-based learning]” said Lindsay McKay, who teaches a combined third- and fourth-grade class, which is another renewal initiative. “The F grade was tough to hear, but it didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know.
“Still, when we implemented PBL, we knew it would be at least a three-year process,” said McKay. “It’s a whole new shift not only in how we teach but how the they learn.”
McKay also points out the discrepancy between the model Kaler is using to engage students and the test the state is using to assess them.
“The problem is that having PBL – moving into exploratory, hands-on collaborative learning – and then expecting them to still take a silent, sit-down, independent, paper-and-pencil test, it’s two different worlds,” she said, adding that Kaler, like all South Portland elementary schools, no longer gives letter grades as it moves toward the proficiency-based model the state is sending down the pike.
“I don’t think it’s fair to compare Kale to the other schools,” said Elijah’s mom, Heather Sinclair. “I think my son is doing great here. He’s thrived with the smaller classrooms and the project-based learning. We’re very happy with this school.”
“We know this is a school that needs improvement, but I think the project-based learning has us on track. I think it’s been a great experience for all of the kids,” said Angela Emery, co-chairwoman of Kaler’s Parent-Teacher Association.
Karen Briggs, a fifth-grade teacher of 17 years at Kaler, said she felt “totally deflated” by the state-assigned grade, saying that it does not capture what is really going on at Kaler.
One of the better renewal projects has been a morning in-class breakfast program to make sure all of the lower-income students start the day charged, and having had a chance to interact positively with an adult. That, she said, has cut down dramatically on absenteeism and mid-day trips to the school nurse for unspecified ills.
“Once we changed our direction, kids can’t wait to come to school,” said Briggs. “We really are establishing a sense that you belong here and that you are supported here. That’s not reflected in that F whatsoever.
“We’re still at the very beginning of our renewal,” said Briggs, who feels confident that NECAP test scores will rebound after a dip this year. The first hurdle was encouraging regular attendance and participation.
“Most of my kids have made personal growth under our model,” said Briggs. “So, I say the F is for fantastic.”