‘Here for the kids’ School chief recommends city try for grant to reform Longley Elementary

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LEWISTON — Superintendent Leon Levesque is recommending that the city apply for a federal grant to improve student performance at Longley Elementary, which serves the city’s most impoverished children.

The Lewiston School Committee is scheduled to act on the recommendation Monday night.

Longley is among 10 Maine schools with such persistently low test scores that the federal government is offering money to help turn things around.

Each school could receive between $50,000 and $2 million over three years, but there’s a catch: The schools would have to make big changes, including replacing their principals. At Longley, that means 12-year veteran Tom Hood would lose his job.

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“It’s real unfortunate that the resources come to us at the end of the line, not the front of the line,” Levesque said Friday. “But we need to put aside our pride and excuses. We’re here for the kids. What’s the best design we can make?”

School of poverty

The effort to reform Longley faces big hurdles. The school is like no other in the city.

An estimated 96 percent of its students live in poverty. The state average is 42 percent. And, 62 percent of students are immigrants, compared to 3 percent statewide.

Poverty and mobility are two of the biggest problems at Longley, Hood said. Many of its students move frequently, meaning a large number of them are not there from one year to the next.

“Teachers start out the school year making gains,” Hood said. Then students move. “A month or two later someone else comes in. They may not speak any English or they might.”

Teachers end up having multiple levels of students, some two or three grade levels behind. “That makes it very difficult for teachers trying to instruct,” Hood said. “It takes a lot more effort, resources, time.”

Of the 33 students in the third grade, only six have been at the school since kindergarten, he said.

Money to help turn things around “is what these kids really have needed since this building’s been open,” Hood said. “It’s always been an inner-city, at-risk population here.”

He’s disappointed that he may be replaced when there’s an opportunity to get additional resources, “to create conditions for kids and staff that we’ve always wanted to create but were never able to do it,” he said.

He said he’s uncomfortable not knowing what will happen. “It’s like you’re caught in this zone, feeling unsure.”

Two choices

If the School Committee decides to apply for the federal money and if Lewiston is awarded a grant, the next step would be to see how much money is offered, Levesque said. If it’s not enough to make a difference, why bother, he said.

To get the school where it should be, many students need to gain two to three years of academics in one year, he said.

According to the federal grant, there are four reform models from which to choose: close the school, create a charter school, or go with either a “turnaround” or “transformation” model. Longley will not be closed, Levesque said.  There’s no room for 312 students at other schools. Maine law does not allow charter schools, so Lewiston would have to decide between the turnaround and transformation models.

In a turnaround model, no more than 50 percent of the school’s existing staff would stay. In the transformation, model staff would stay. In either model, the principal would go.

Longley teacher Steve Gagne said he and others were anxious.

“We’ve seen programs come and go,” he said. “Our goals are what’s best for the kids at Longley School. This may be an opportunity, but still, we’re apprehensive.”

Teachers wonder how much real academic growth students would make, versus improving test scores, Gagne said.

“We don’t control all the factors in a child’s life,” he said. “Are their personal needs being met? Are they coming to school hungry, tired, loved, taken care of? Those pieces come into play in how successful a child is in school. We don’t know how much we can affect all those things in the course of a school day.”

bwashuk@sunjournal.com

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