2014-06-13 / Front Page

‘Failing’ school granted $1.6 million

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – After receiving a grade of F from the Maine Department of Education two years in a row, the James Otis Kaler Community School of Inquiry and Exploration in South Portland has been given $1.6 million to help bolster student test scores.

Kaler serves the poorest part of South Portland, with 63 percent of its 231 students in pre-K through grade five qualifying for free and reduced-price meals.

When the Maine Department of Education released its inaugural list of school letter grades in 2013, Kaler was given a failing mark. On a possible 400-point scale, the school received 169.3 points, the seventh-worst cumulative score of all 422 schools measured in Maine that house grades three through eight. Last month, on updated report cards issued by the state, that score fell to 160.9 points, with just 38.5 percent of Kaler students performing at grade level on standardized tests in math and 44.4 percent in reading. Both scores are significantly below the Maine averages of 61.2 percent, and 70 percent, respectively.

“Improving schools improves opportunities for our kids to reach their full potential,” said Gov. Paul LePage, in a DOE press release issued Tuesday to announce the grant award.

“Instead of making excuses, Kaler Elementary School leaders are raising the expectations of themselves and their students,” LePage said. “I congratulate them for putting their students first and giving the classroom teachers the resources they need to raise aspirations and achievement.”

The $1.6 million, awarded through the federal School Improvement Grant program, will be used to develop new instructional models and to pay for specialized student support and teacher development. Plans also include extending both the school day and the school year at Kaler. The hope, according to Maine Education Commissioner Jim Rier, is to boost student scores in both math and reading by 10 percent annually over the next three years.

According to South Portland Schools Superintendent Suzanne Godin, plans for teacher development, along with changes to Kaler’s school calendar, will be finalized over the summer.

“I do believe that the work ahead, while rigorous, will benefit the students at Kaler,” she said at Monday’s school board meeting.

However, it has already been decided that classes at Kaler will begin an hour early, at 8 a.m., starting in September. Bus schedules will have to be juggled to accommodate that, as well as plans to keep struggling students after school and into summer 2015.

As a condition of accepting the grant, South Portland had to replace Kaler Principal Diane Lang. That caused a mini-firestorm last month when Godin announced plans to swap Lang with Bonnie Hicks, principal at Small Elementary School, on the city’s east end.

Initial opposition to that move by Small parents prompted an online petition signed by 170 people, although not all of them residents, on the website change.org. However, parents were placated by meetings held to introduce the principals to their new schools and to begin the transition process, with protests of the swap petering off.

In addition to developing a third teaching model in as many years — Kaler launched a renewal effort in 2011, using hands-on, projectbased learning as a means to combat low test scores —the grant money will aid data collection and public reporting, while paying teachers to work the extra hours added to the school schedule.

Under Hicks, Kaler also will hire new math and data coaches and four new ed techs, while adding two days of “structured staff time” to review student performance data. A total of $30,000 also will be set aside to pay annual stipends to teachers who produce the greatest gains in student achievement.

“While the Kaler principal and staff have been working hard to support students and increase parent and community engagement, new coaching positions and increased student learning time are strategies we haven’t been able to provide for in our local budget,” Godin said. “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. We look forward to the work ahead.”

Grant money also will be used to contract with Spurwink Services, Opportunity Alliance, and United Way of Greater Portland to offer support for Kaler parents and to connect them with community resources, as well as to provide behavioral and mental health counseling to students as needed.

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