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.
“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.