Lewiston School Department/Sun Journal illustration
Green is Geiger, blue is Montello, tan is Martel, gray is Longley, orange is Farwell and brown is McMahon.
LEWISTON — On the second floor of Montello Elementary School Thursday, sixth graders in Michelle Agate's class worked on their writing projects as Agate offered individual coaching.
In the class of 24, seven were English Language Learner students. Just before noon, four were pulled out, receiving small group instruction in another class from ELL teacher Steve Maroon.
Back in Agate's room, students researched a scientist of their choice, said ed tech Brianna Woods. One girl wearing a hijab picked Marie Curie, a boy next to her chose Thomas Edison, and another boy was researching Isaac Newton.
The class was quiet and orderly; students were down to business.
One floor down, it was math time in Amanda Hammond's first grade.
Students sat on the floor gathered around their teacher. The white board displayed the problem: 7 – 3 = ?
Using markers, students wrote their answers on hand-held paddles.
“One, two, three ... hold up your boards!” Hammond said.
The class of 21, including seven ELL students, held up their answers. “Seven minus three equals four!” the students answered together.
One first grader offered an observation that pleased the teacher. The girl said she knows that seven minus three equals four because four plus three equals seven. "Those are the related facts," Hammond said. "Nice thinking!”
The class went to the next problem: 4 + 4 = ?
Redistricting reasons: Smaller class sizes, more equity
Montello has a student population of 714, of which 37 percent are ELL students, 75 percent from poor, downtown households. Those percentages are higher than the citywide average for elementary students, which is 23 percent ELL students, 67 percent from poor households.
At Montello, good learning is going on. Teachers work hard. But Montello has more than its share of students from impoverished and immigrant families. Those students often come to school less prepared to learn compared to students from middle-class families.
With a goal of providing more equity for all Lewiston students, the Lewiston Redistricting Committee is recommending redistricting 223 elementary students, 7 percent of the elementary population, this fall at Montello, McMahon and Geiger.
Of the 223, 131 would be downtown youngsters from poorer and/or immigrant families; 87 would go to McMahon, 44 to Geiger.
Meanwhile, 92 Geiger students, mostly from middle-class neighborhoods, would go to Montello.
That proposal is raising eyebrows, angst and distrust among Geiger and McMahon parents who oppose the change.
The public is invited to weigh in on the proposal before the Lewiston School Committee at 6:45 p.m. Monday at Lewiston High School. The school board will first hear the redistricting committee's recommendation, then listen to the public. No vote will be taken that night.
The board is scheduled to vote on Feb. 25.
One big reason for the need to redistrict is to create more room in crowded classrooms.
“Lewiston enrollment is growing, picking up 100-plus students a year, Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster has told parents. While most Maine school districts are losing students, Lewiston enrollment is projected to grow from 5,000 to 6,000 in 10 years. “We are atypical,” Webster said. Schools have run out of room and are at capacity.
A school renovation at McMahon means this fall it will have 10 new classrooms that need to be filled. When they are, there'll be smaller classrooms at other schools. Average class sizes at McMahon will fall from 24.5 to 21, at Geiger, 22.5 to 21.7.
Everyone's happy with that.
It's the second reason that has some riled — making Lewiston's elementary schools more equitable.
While Montello has 75 percent poor students and 37 percent ELL students, McMahon has 52 percent poor, 15 percent ELL; Geiger has 58 percent poor, 14 percent ELL. If redistricting is approved, Geiger would have 61 percent poor, 19 percent ELL; and McMahon, 60 percent poor, 24 percent ELL.
Proponents: Changes 'long time coming'
Redistricting committee members have said if all elementary schools more closely reflected the city's diversity, more students would have more success.
“I'm proud of the direction of this committee,” committee member and Longley school principal Linda St. Andre said at a Jan. 7 meeting. Spreading out students with greater needs to more schools “has been a long time coming,” she said.
Montello grandmother Louise Elie said with the higher numbers of poor and ELL students, parents are reluctant to send their children to Montello. “That's one of the reasons this redistricting is so important.” Too many parents opposed are being self-serving, she said, encouraging committee members to “keep in mind the greater good.”
At a Jan. 9 meeting, Montello parent Rachel Dymkoski spoke in favor of reducing ELL students at Montello, and against an alternative proposal to fill McMahon classrooms by moving that school's boundary so it would take in more middle-class families, boosting Montello's ELL population to 40 percent. That plan would bus her student from Montello to McMahon.
“Why is my child good enough to come to your school, but a Knox Street child isn't good enough to come to your school?” she asked.
Somali parent and community activist Gure Ali said he approves of the committee's redistricting plan.
At first, Somali parents weren't sure about it, he said. Now more understand it. Spreading out poorer students and those learning English to other schools will create “more assimilation,” benefiting both Somali and white students, Ali said.
“When you're speaking to the child next to you, you will learn English better. It's going to be a broader opportunity for them to assimilate,” he said. For non-ELL students, “it will give them the opportunity to learn a foreign culture without traveling,” Ali said.
Bates College anthropology associate professor Elizabeth Eames, who has worked with Lewiston's immigrant population, applauded the move to make schools less homogeneous. Her son graduated from Lewiston High School in 2010 and is now at Yale.
The short-term plan doesn't go far enough, she said, because it doesn't change Longley Elementary, the school with the highest number of poor students (93 percent) and those learning English (61 percent).
Eames likes the long-term plan that proposes to, in five years, close Martel Elementary, create a pre-K-2 school for Martel and Farwell students at Farwell, a pre-K-2 school at Longley and, if Lewiston gets state construction money, build a new grade 3-6 school for Longley, Martel and Farwell students.
The benefit of mixing students in the early grades are several, she said. “It puts students in the same boat, getting the same opportunities.” When students of similar backgrounds attend the same schools, “you're depriving the Lewiston population of understanding itself, depriving the city of bonding, coming together and acting like a community.”
When students suddenly come together in one building at the middle school, as is what now happens, “there are bound to be problems,” Eames said. Students look at others who are different and are mystified, she said. "The likelihood of blending is reduced.”
Homogenous groups is “not what public schools are for,” Eames said. “Public schools are for getting people together across class and ethnic lines, to produce American citizens and that melting pot.”
Opponents: Change could 'challenge what we have'
Those opposed to redistricting are skeptical of any benefits, and say they have lost trust in Lewiston educators.
“I'm not a fan of the proposal,” said Janet Beaudoin, the mother of two. “It's not a matter of race,” she said, but more a matter of keeping neighborhood schools.
Jodi Wolverton, mother of three and president of the McMahon PTO, said despite all the meetings Webster held with parents, one for each elementary school, “the process was unfair."
Their concerns haven't been addressed, she said. “Things like the value of neighborhood schools versus forced busing they're proposing, or drains on the resources at McMahon and how it's going to challenge what we have.”
If proponents acknowledged it would be a big change, “but this is what we're going to do to alleviate some of it,'” parents would be more comfortable, she said. It would also lessen concern if proponents said redistricting would be revisited in six months, or if benchmarks were set to ensure success.
J.R. Davis said he doesn't think redistricting “is fiscally responsible.” At first, parents were told it would cost two more buses. Now they're being told it won't. He suspects there will be costs.
And, he added, “they're not presenting any data, in my opinion, to show that's it's an appropriate move for the students.” If they had data that showed it would increase student achievement, “it would be an easy sell,” he said.
Geiger parent Robert Strong presented two alternative redistricting proposals to Webster. Last week, the redistricting committee rejected four alternative proposals from parents.
Strong said he worked with ELL parents to come up with the plans. One would move 87 downtown Montello students to McMahon. That would avoid trading students from one school to another and would not move students to a lower-testing school. It would also lighten the ELL teacher load at Montello.
Under Strong's plan, Montello's ELL population would go from 37 to 30 percent, McMahon's ELL population, from 15 to 24, and Geiger would be left alone.
The redistricting committee, he said, has lost its credibility with parents.
“I attended the last redistricting committee meeting and was surprised by individual (committee) members' disdain for ideas from parents and voters — disdain for full transparency with the public through the city council, and disdain for granting committee representation to parents from the affected schools.”
It's clear, Strong said, “that no proposal other than their own flawed plan will ever receive their stamp.”
While Webster has been available to answer questions, the redistricting committee declined to answer questions last week.
On Wednesday, the Sun Journal contacted redistricting committee member Jim Handy, also chairman of the Lewiston School Committee, asking him to react to parents' concerns.
Handy declined to comment, which is out of character for the ordinarily outspoken chairman. Handy referred the Sun Journal to email redistricting committee spokeswoman Audrey Chapman.
Chapman responded to the Sun Journal by thanking the reporter “for reaching out," she wrote. "I am not going to comment at this time.”