2013-05-10 / Front Page

Buzzing about Kaler

Kaler, even Cape officials condemn grades
By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer


Klahra Cajuste, 7, a second-grader at Kaler Elementary School, presents an insect she created, “Buzzzy,” at the school’s community night Thursday, May 2. Her fictional insect has the life cycle of a butterfly, diet of an ant, and lives in Haiti, where Cajuste and her family lived until three years ago, when they moved to South Portland. (Jack Flagler photo) Klahra Cajuste, 7, a second-grader at Kaler Elementary School, presents an insect she created, “Buzzzy,” at the school’s community night Thursday, May 2. Her fictional insect has the life cycle of a butterfly, diet of an ant, and lives in Haiti, where Cajuste and her family lived until three years ago, when they moved to South Portland. (Jack Flagler photo) SOUTH PORTLAND – A few times each year, as part of their project-based learning program, the students, teachers and staff at Kaler Elementary School in South Portland hold community nights. They invite families and community members into classrooms, where students present the hands-on projects they’ve studied over the previous weeks.

At the most recent event, held May 2, the students’ PowerPoints, dioramas and illustrations seemed to have extra importance. The previous afternoon, the state of Maine had given an F to Kaler School under a new grading system that rates each school on an A-F scale.


Lindsey McKay’s fourth-grade students went to each of the teachers and staff at Kaler school with notes of encouragement after news came down that the school received an F under the state’s new grading system. (Jack Flagler photo) Lindsey McKay’s fourth-grade students went to each of the teachers and staff at Kaler school with notes of encouragement after news came down that the school received an F under the state’s new grading system. (Jack Flagler photo) “I was really surprised. I wouldn’t have been surprised two or three years ago, but I think the school has really taken off,” said Emily Curry, mother of Kaler fifth-grader Will Curry.

Curry said her son, who is autistic, has taken mainstream classes for the last year, and she’s noticed Will is more excited about school since the project-based learning program was put in place.

At the community night, which teachers and staff called a “Kalerbration,” Will, 10, presented a diorama of the Gulf of Maine ecosystem, updated to include a fictional creature he created, the “Sharkdollar.”

The diorama, inscribed with Will’s nickname “WillxMC,” included the food web of organisms in the Gulf of Maine and a visual interpretation of the Sharkdollar’s habitat, information learned from independent research and a trip along the Greenbelt to Casco Bay.

Project-based learning programs like these have been part of the Kaler School curriculum for two years. They came about, according to Principal Diane Lang, because teachers and administrators recognized the school was lagging on test scores and was searching for a new way to engage students.

Boyd Marley, a special education teacher at Kaler School, said the F grade from the state did not tell parents or teachers anything they didn’t already know.

“The governor is really behind the ball on this,” Marley said. “We already knew (about the issues), and that’s why we started the project-based learning piece.”

Lang agreed that the system served no purpose for Kaler School, but only “pigeon-holed” its teachers and staff as inadequate.

“That’s not what education is about. It’s insulting and it’s wrong,” Lang said.

Samantha Warren, communications director for the Department of Education, said the grading system was never intended to stigmatize.She noted, “Amazing things are happening at F schools,” but Warren said the system makes information easier to digest.

“WhatA-to-F does is take existing data that the districts have submitted, and presents it in a new way that is understandable and usable. That’s ultimately important in engaging in parents and communities,” Warren said.

The grading system is based on standardized test scores at the elementary, middle school and high school level. It weighs both students’ proficiency in reading and math scores, as well as growth over time. Kaler was one of 49 elementary schools to receive a failing grade. Dyer School, located a little more than a mile away, received an A.

Gigi Stone-Grannell is a mother to three daughters, two of whom attend South Portland elementary schools. Sophie is a third-grader at Kaler. Beth is a fourthgrader at Dyer. Stone-Grannell chose to put Sophie in Kaler School when it opened up its enrollment last year after the project-based learning program started. She thinks both schools fit her daughters’ individual needs.

“(Kaler) is an amazing school. It’s too bad that the governor would put these grades on these schools. It’s ridiculous. They’re both incredible schools. They both have amazing teachers,” Stone-Grannell said.

Stone-Grannell noted the grades fell along socioeconomic trends, as schools with more students eligible for free or reduced lunch received lower grades, but she is pleased Sophie has a chance to interact with children from diverse backgrounds at Kaler.

Dyer School has the lowest percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunch in South Portland, while Kaler School has the highest percentage. No South Portland school with 31 percent or more of its students eligible for free or reduced lunch received higher than a C.

Warren said the socioeconomic divide should start a discussion in Maine about how to help poor school districts rather than serve as a reason to cast aside the grading system.

“When we say we should expect poor results from poor kids that’s really selling the kids short,” Warren said. We should find that hook for kids. What gets them excited about learning?”

Stone-Grannell works in the Scarborough school district, whose three schools received two A grades and one B. All three of Cape Elizabeth’s schools received an A, but Superintendent Meredith Nadeau also criticized the system.

“These grades are based on a narrow view of student progress and performance and haven’t provided us as a district with any new information about student learning,” Nadeau wrote in a memo on the department’s website.

State Sen. Rebecca Millett (D-Cape Elizabeth) said other states, such as Massachusetts and New Jersey, have found ways to evaluate schools without the stigma of an A-F scale. She and other Maine Democrats planned to unveil an alternative system at a press conference on Wednesday, May 8, after the Sentry’s deadline.

Millett served on the Cape Elizabeth school board for six years before her political career moved to Augusta. She is the Senate chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs.

“I question the department had to issue letter grades in order to start a conversation about school performance. If there is a desire to broaden that conversation, I don’t think it required labeling schools as F and failing in order to do that,” Millett said.

At Kaler School, fourth-grade teacher Lindsey McKay heard the bad news and decided not to let the label drive down spirits. Her class wrote notes to each of the teachers and staff with messages like, “You score phenomenally high on the kind-o-meter. Seriously. We checked,” then distributed the notes at lunch.

McKay said students were pleased to see their teachers so happy.

“I encouraged lots of hugging and highfiving,” she said.

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