Longley Elementary changes include new teachers, new approaches

LEWISTON — After dancing with 5-year-olds during an exercise break, former U.S. Marine Scott Emery sat in a circle with his kindergarten pupils.

Longley teachers
Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Longley Elementary School kindergarten teacher Scott Emery teaches the sounds in words during one of his classes.

“Boys and girls, I'm calling on quiet listeners,” Emery said in his Longley Elementary School classroom. “Amina, you're doing a wonderful job listening. I need you guys to tell me what words you wrote. Jared, great job listening.”

Emery called on students to come up front and spell out words. Using plastic, magnetic letters, one boy wrote the word “have.” The next wrote “little” and the next “to.” Each time, the group of kindergartners sitting on the floor read the word together and spelled it.

“Wonderful job,” Emery said. He then called a few students at a time to leave the circle and go to their seats.

“I would like Najma, Fatuma and Salma to go to their seats," he said. "Great listening." He called on three to see him privately because their listening wasn't so great. “You need to focus,” he coached.

The only male kindergarten teacher in Lewiston-Auburn, and in his first year of teaching, Emery, 35, is one of the new teachers at Longley. In his class of 21 children, most are Somali.

Emery said he was interested in working at Longley because he can relate to students.

“I grew up in similar socio-economic status in Poland," he said. "I come from a family of nine, the only one to graduate from college. I also lived on Knox Street for a short time.”

Male kindergarten teachers are rare, and many Longley students don't have positive male role models. He said he hopes to become one for his students. And, he knows what it's like to not know the language.

In the Marines he went to Kenya, Korea, Japan and Cuba. He remembers how frustrating it was being in a minority and unable to communicate. One of his students just started school Nov. 5 and doesn't speak English. He feels bad for her.

“I can't imagine coming to kindergarten without the ability to speak to the teacher, being separated from your mother or father, trying to overcome all those obstacles,” Emery said. “I don't think I could understand the magnitude of what she's feeling. It's heart-wrenching.”

He has assigned a couple of students who speak the girl's language to be mentors. The school has a Somali translator who checks in on her and others daily. On the girl's fourth day, Emery said her face had gone from serious and afraid to some smiles. She's following the routine of other students, he said.

The goal at Longley is to boost student learning more than one grade level each year through a host of programs, including teacher coaches, extra help for students and more professional development for teachers who work with under-performing students. “Any way I can infuse literacy and math into my themes, I am doing,” Emery said.

His class sings a rap-style alphabet song that helps kindergartners memorize letters and their sounds. They sing the song during class and while lining up for recess or lunch, “pounding those letter sounds,” Emery said.

Most of his Somali students were born in the United States.

"They're extremely hardworking in school," Emery said. "The parents are very involved and want to know how their kids are doing. Some students need to be taught how to behave in school."

He's teaching that through positive reinforcement, he said. “I don't say, 'Don't do this.' I say, 'Look at Jared. He's being a great leader.” When he praises one for being a good listener, others “fix themselves,” he said.

So far, the year is going well, Emery said. “Today I had a student who couldn't write the number four. This morning the student came up to me, showing me the number four.”

Those little successes, someone writing their name or raising their hand because they know the letter 'R' sound, are the best part of his job, he said.

“At the end of the year, those little successes will cause the big success; everybody being ready for grade one,” he said.


Editor's note: Last year, Longley Elementary School was identified as one of 10 Maine schools with such persistently low test scores that it qualified for $2 million in federal money to help boost those scores school-wide to grade levels. One condition attached to the money was that the principal and half of the teachers had to go.

Low test scores at Longley are nothing new. The school, which opened in the early 1970s, is in a low-income neighborhood. The majority of students are Somali immigrants learning to speak English. Many students enter school academically behind their peers.

With the federal money, Longley has hired additional staff and has begun new programs to boost student performance. This is the first story in an occasional series about changes at Longley. Today, we focus on one of the school's new kindergarten teachers, Scott Emery.

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Parents should be taught first..

Sending these students off to school without knowing our language is uncalled for..Maybe they should impress the need to learn english when they come over here to take over our schools..I noticed they said the majority of them are somolians..what happens to the poor kids that aren't..left to fend for themselves??? all the attention seems to go on them and trying to tteach them in a country that is not really theres..the parents don't seem to want to learn our culture either..

 's picture

Great points from both Jeff

Great points from both Jeff and Dan (of WDL fame.. great to see you guys on here).

Dan: There is a bit of a difference between immigrants coming here and Rau's story. These were missionaries from one country going to another (although it was under the same empire) and changing the names of the people there. These are people coming here, and it has been a very normal process for people's names to become anglicized.. it happened with the pronunciation of my last name and probably many, many other first last names of people commenting on this website.

BUT, I think the point you're making is still very important. There is certainly a lack of sensitivity from "natives" whenever a group of "foreigners" come in to a new place. We assume that they should do whatever they can to assimilate themselves into their new setting as soon as possible and that it will be very easy, so people may not even second guess the personal effects of something like giving someone an anglicized nickname, especially if it is without their consent.

 's picture

Permanent hand-out and coddling

One of my daughters attended a prestigious college located in a major city in the Deep South. Many years before my daughter attended students of the college realized the tremendous need in the community for community service programs and volunteers and got the college to develop a tremendous set of programs through student services and student government. Every student at the college worked in at least one of the programs; my daughter worked in several including as a teacher’s aid two and a half days a week at a school that sounds very much like Longley. That school too had been completely taken over by a minority group; there was not a single white student nor even though it was in the Deep South a single Hispanic student in the school. My daughter said most of the students had such bizarre birth names there was no way the staff could ever pronounce them so they had been given nicknames. She worked with kindergarten students like the teacher in this article. She said none of them knew their colors and she called me in tears one day to tell me they didn’t even know what an apple, banana, or orange was. She could not understand how parents could not teach their children basic things like their colors, the names of fruit, and to count to ten. The teacher told her that this was normal for the classes in that school. All the kids where immigrant or born to immigrant or second generation parents and there was absolutely no attempt to assimilate, just like with the Somalis. The kids typically came to school speaking no English. The school was by far the smallest in the city; it was also by far the most expensive many times over to operate. Attempting to educated these kids took every special service in the book and then some in volume. Teacher burnout was incredible; the maximum longevity at the school was three years, most left after one. This is happening all over the country with all the legal and illegal immigrants clustering and in effect taking over neighborhoods and schools creating a tremendous burden on services and resources. This year Longley got a big chunk of federal taxpayer money which is still our money, but soon it will go back to just City taxpayer money funding this school. The per pupil cost to provide for each of these students with all the special services they receive takes away from all the other students in the district whose parents did teach them English, to count to ten, what an apple, orange, and banana are, and their colors. It is great to give a hand-up to these people in crisis but bringing them into our country or allowing them to stay when they enter illegally has only put parts of our country in crisis and threatened to put all of it into crisis since they did not accept the hand-up and to assimilate but expect a permanent handout and coddling for generation after generation.

Jeff Bailey's picture

Challenging, No Doubt

I understand that students from a different background (in language, culture and religion) creates a huge challenge for schools. I also understand, as CommonSense pointed out, that some of the federal money available to meet those challenges is temporary. These are real challenges that need to be address, and shouldn't be left for individual towns and districts to figure out on their own.

Having said that, we need to take up the challenge that this country has put forth to educate ALL children. It's one of the few things that separates American education from others around the world. Regardless of race, disability, or nation of origin, we have a duty to educate all children. I'm not so idealistic as to suggest that this can be done quickly or even inexpensively but it still needs to be done.

I think that the assertion that educating these students is "taking away from" other students in the class may not be entirely true. Good teachers, like Scott Emery, know how to differentiate instruction: provide valuable educational opportunities at different levels and times for students, challenging them at their level. I'm sure that when the a student who properly spelled a word and listened correctly (as mentioned in the article) went back to his/her seat, there was work appropriate to their level for them to do. That's good teaching.

Considering the war-torn country that many Somali families came from, I'm not sure that education is foremost in the minds of people who are looking to survive on a daily basis. I'm proud that I live in a country that allows my family to not worry about such atrocities, and I cast no blame on those parents who decided to move to the US to find that better life for their own children.

Jeff Bailey
Proud Teacher at Mountain Valley High School
Rumford, Maine

 's picture

Great work!

Well done, Mr. Emery. Keep up the great work! Thank you SJ for this positive look at the hard work going on in schools.

 's picture

Just one example of some of

Just one example of some of the amazing teachers in very challenging situations in the Lewiston School District. This positive press is absolutely deserved.

 's picture

God bless you, Mr. Emery :)

You are an inspiration and a great example for us all. Positive reinforcement,” When he praises one for being a good listener, others “fix themselves”. I wish people would understand this and apply it daily. Wonderful job, Mr. Emery. :)


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