Ways proposed to improve student learning at Longley

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LEWISTON — Longer school days for students, grouping students by ability and not just grade level, and dedicating every Wednesday afternoon for teacher professional development are a few ways student learning could be boosted at the Longley Elementary School.

Those were some of the proposals shared with the Lewiston School Committee on Monday night by a task force writing a federal grant application.

The inner city school has long had the city’s poorest students. More recently the school has a majority, or 62 percent, of its students who are immigrants.

For years Longley’s test scores have been significantly below state averages. Recently Longley was picked as one of 10 Maine schools with such low test scores that the federal government is offering money to improve.

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The catch is the school would have to make big changes, including replacing the principal and revamping teaching. How much money Longley could receive isn’t clear, but it could be as much as $2 million.

A community task force writing the grant application went over dozens of ideas for School Committee members. Changes range from creating a new culture at the school to hiring teaching coaches to creating a parent teacher association and a parent center, said grant writer and Title I teacher coordinator Terry Steinbeiser. There is no parent teacher group.

One of the biggest proposed changes would be to group students for reading and math lessons not by grades, but by what level they needed, Steinbeiser said.

Now classroom teachers have a wide range of student ability in the same class. This would break out of that, creating groups of students at more similar levels and allow learning to be accelerated, Steinbeiser said.

Meanwhile, teachers would use data “to really look and continue to make sure kids are moving forward, and they’re placed appropriately,” she said. The groups would be flexible, and students would not be locked into one group all year.

Another big change would be the continuous use of data to monitor student achievement and teaching to ensure effective instruction is happening, Steinbeiser said.

The grant proposal also calls for lengthening the school day four days a week by one hour during the school year, and by six weeks during the summer vacation, to give extra learning to students who need it.

The faculty would be strengthened in several ways. By adding extra positions, such as coaches and someone to work closer with families. How many new positions is not yet known, Steinbeiser said.

Another way would be by providing teachers with professional development every Wednesday afternoon. During that time, students would receive some kind of enrichment activity.

The culture at Longley would be improved by hiring a behavior specialist who would help teachers with behavior problems, and by coordinating with Lewiston police to ensure students arrive and leave school safely.

Recent focus groups have revealed that students don’t feel safe walking to and from school. “Police have moved into the neighborhood … and are out there and visible after school,” Curriculum Director Janice Plourde said. But there is a safety issue in the area, she said.

Special education coordinator Pam Butler invited School Committee members to “come down to see a day in the life of Longley School, because I don’t think it can be described.”

Butler said she has students who were making the honor roll, but are now disturbed. Some “are bringing weapons to school now because they don’t feel safe … I worry about that.”

Butler also said more administrative help is needed to address behavioral problems. By 8:40 a.m. there are students sent to the office “because there was a fight on the playground, in the cafeteria, or somebody said something, a racial slur. (It’s) constant,” Butler said.

Another proposal would be to implement a schoolwide vocabulary program because students show up with a vocabulary deficit, Steinbeiser said. But because the grant has so many ideas, that may have to be dropped, she said.

School Committee Chairman Jim Handy praised the work of the grant writers, adding they are producing the application in a short time.

Superintendent Leon Levesque cautioned that after the grant application is submitted, “what comes back to us may not be what we submitted. The reviewers are going to put us through a lot of questioning,” he said. “What is evident to me is we want practice to change,” he said.

The grant will be submitted in mid-May. Lewiston could find out whether it received a grant, and how much, later this month.

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