Lewiston to pursue aid for Longley School

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LEWISTON — School leaders will pursue up to $2 million in federal grant money, at least so far.

In a 7-1-1 vote, school committee members voted to see how much money may be offered to aid Longley Elementary School, classified by Washington as a lowest performing school.

Then they will decide whether the strings attached are too great.

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

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The money could mean the reassignment of Principal Tom Hood. Under one federal solution, it could also mean the loss of up to half of the school’s staff.

“What we have here is a situation of circumstance, not blame,” School Committee Chairman James Handy said. I have full confidence in the Longley staff. “There’s not one of you worth sacrificing.”

Rather, he blamed a “cookie-cutter” educational system that fails to take into account some of Longley’s demographics, such as a 96 percent poverty rate and a student body of 312 in which nearly two-thirds are still learning English.

“It is not the fault of the staff,” said Sonia Taylor, the only committee member to vote against the measure. “I am completely, thoroughly heartbroken.” Committee member Walter Hill abstained.

Monday’s vote committed Superintendent Leon Levesque to send a letter of intent to Washington, spelling out the school department’s plan to ask for money.

Meanwhile, work is going on at the school to write a grant application aimed at making improvements.

Focus groups of parents, children and school staffers have formed, overseen by staff from Lewiston Adult Education. An online staff questionnaire has been written and posted.

Questions to the groups include inquiries about needs of the school building, discipline, school hours, extra schoolwork and a population of students that seems to be constantly moving from home to home and in and out of the school area.

Hood said he has worked hard to create programs that reach out to parents in particular, creating times for parents to talk with teachers and for teachers to help parents instruct their children in English.

Peter Geiger, a donor to Lewiston’s Geiger Elementary School and the executive vice president of the Geiger company, spoke up in favor of Hood and his innovations at the school. He also criticized the federal aid.

“I don’t think the federal government ever really did much for education,” he said, drawing applause from attendees.

But money is money.

“If I were the superintendent, I’d go after the money,” he said.

Committee member Thomas Shannon said he plans to suspend judgment until the process moves along.

“I’m going to listen to what they bring to us, because what we’ve got ain’t working,” Shannon said.

The school department has until May 7 to submit its application.

dhartill@sunjournal.com

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