LEWISTON — In the Longley Elementary School cafeteria, pre-schoolers chatted as they ate together. When the bell rang, older students filed in for burritos and salad.
For students, days here seem normal.
But for others, “it's very sad here now,” said veteran school secretary Pauline Valliere. “Everybody's bonded together. There are close relationships. … It's being broken up.”
Longley is one of 10 Maine schools offered federal money to improve persistently low test scores. Longley could get as much as $2 million to try to improve its test-score standings.
But the money comes with a catch: Grant providers want dramatic improvement and change. Half of the school's teachers, and the principal, have to go.
“No one is losing their job,” said Human Resources Director Tom Jarvis. “We were able to accommodate all the moves.”
Half of Longley's 20 teachers will be transferred to other Lewiston schools this fall; 10 other teachers will be assigned to Longley.
Longley Principal Tom Hood will become the principal of McMahon Elementary School.
McMahon Principal Althea Walker will become principal of Farwell Elementary School.
Walker will replace Farwell Principal Linda St. Andre, who will be the new Longley principal.
Teachers leaving Longley will fill vacancies at other schools created by retirements or resignations, Jarvis said. Two teachers who may have faced layoffs from budget cuts are transferring to Longley. The school department is looking to hire eight more teachers for Longley.
Staff feelings mixed
The changes have some Longley staffers feeling bruised. They're worried that new faculty may not understand their students.
Linda Hayes, who sees students come through her lunch line every day, has mixed feelings about efforts to improve the school.
“It's great to have the money coming in, but it's very bad some of these people are leaving,” said Hayes, assistant manager of the lunch program. “They are great people to these kids. They deal with these kids in a way you'd have to be here to see it. They know how to handle these kids.”
Longley students deal with a lot of issues, she said, a lack of social skills and language barriers.
An estimated 96 percent of Longley students qualify for free and reduced lunches; the state average is 42 percent. Situated in the city's poorest neighborhood, for years many Longley students began kindergarten already academically behind youngsters the same age in other neighborhoods. In recent years, Somali families have moved in, which means 62 percent of the students are learning to speak English.
Another telling sign is that at Longley there is no parent-teacher group. “We can't get parents to come in,” said secretary Valliere.
Help is needed, Hayes said, but she questioned what any teacher could do when her sixth-grade class has 26 students, half of whom cannot speak English well enough to learn their lessons.
“They needed this before,” Hayes said. Not meeting test-score expectations has nothing to do with the staff, she said. "We need resources. It's sad to lose our teachers. They're awesome.”
In the teachers' lounge, they said it was frustrating that resources they've needed may come and they won't be there to reap the benefits. It's hard, one said, to leave a school they love.
“The three of us here have collectively almost 70 years here,” said teacher Steve Gagne, nodding to teachers sitting near him. Gagne is being transferred to Montello. “But I went into education to teach kids," he said. "Which school isn't the most important thing.” He hopes the changes help. “We have to try.”
As far as she knows, Title I teacher Amy Gagnon isn't leaving Longley.
“I love it,” she said. “The moment I walked in the door, people were so friendly and welcoming. We all help each other out. It's like a big family.” Teachers work hard to help students, she said.
Hopeful about 'cataclysmic shift'
Jim Handy, chairman of the Lewiston School Committee, said it will take courage and time for everyone to adjust to the changes. He's excited about the possibilities.
The Longley plan in the grant application proposes to boost student learning in part through longer school days and a longer year for students who need more learning time. Teachers will use test data to monitor and adjust lessons.
Lewiston Adult Education will become a partner and an ally in involving parents. “That is a brilliant move,” Handy said. “They've got insights on how to bring parents in.”
Some Somali parents are learning English and other skills through adult education classes on the other side of the Multi-Purpose Building, the same one that houses Longley.
How much reform can be done will depend on how much money is awarded, Handy said. That won't be known until mid or late June.
He's optimistic reform will improve student learning, but it will take three years to see results, he cautioned.
“This is a cataclysmic shift we're talking about, a major shift in the way we do business,” Handy said. “It will allow us to take a school that has been traditional in the way it operates, look at the daily schedule, the start and end time. We'll have additional learning time, teacher preparation time, which none of our schools have.”
The changes will be positive for students, he said. “This opens the door to creativity.”