Editor’s note: At Longley Elementary School, 96 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced lunches, and the school has the highest percentage of immigrant students learning to speak English, 62 percent. Last year, Longley was identified as one of 10 Maine schools with persistent low test scores. It qualified for $2 million in federal money for new resources, such as coaches, to boost student learning. This is the third story in an occasional series about changes at Longley.

LEWISTON — Last year, Diane Wigant taught at Trinity Catholic School. This year, she’s teaching the fourth grade at Longley Elementary School, loving the new way she’s teaching.

This year, Longley teachers are learning new ways to do their job, thanks to a federal school improvement grant that provides full-time coaches.

Julie Adams is the math coach, Joanne Baribault the literacy coach. Their task is to provide constant in-house professional development to teachers to boost student engagement and learning.

It’s working, Wigant said.

Using math as an example, she said she used to teach “skill and drill.” She’d show students how to do a math problem. They’d learn it, then practice with homework of 20 problems.

“Now we do more real life solving problems,” Wigant said. “We’re taking what we have in the textbook and adjusting it to our class.”

Math problems involve students themselves, or things in their world.

Instead of asking how long would it take a train to get from point A to point B, a math problem might ask how long would it take Hussein’s train to travel from Mombasa to Nairobi?

Or, Wigant said, a math problem might ask students: “This is the cost of the ticket. What is the best deal? Is it the one that advertises buy two and get one free, or buy one and get one half off?”

Those kinds of problems combined with less teacher lecturing and more group problem solving by students means “students are doing mental math and are guiding each other. Their brains are turned on,” Adams, a math coach, said.

Wigant said she has one hour for math a day. “Math flies right by.” Some students express disappointment when math is over, “which is really cool.”

Similar strategies meant to provide individual, engaging lessons are also happening in reading.

Teachers do group reading, inviting students to think about the story they’re about to hear by talking about the book’s pictures and title page.

That prompts them to draw on knowledge they already know and draws students into the story.

After reading together, students then do some writing inspired from the story, then read on their own. The books they read are ones they’ve picked from at their level.

“We’re seeing kids excited about reading,” Baribault said. “It’s really nice to walk into a classroom full of children. Every child has a book and it’s quiet as can be.”

Principal Linda St. Andre said the coaches are “providing tremendous support to teachers. Implementing new practices, doing the work we’re doing with such varied (student) needs brings up lots of questions. These are go-to persons on staff.”

Wigant said she wanted to teach at Longley for the challenge and to learn the latest methods. “I have learned a lot about different strategies teaching different kids,” she said.

People outside Longley ask her how it’s going.

“Everyone has a concerned look on their face,” Wigant said while chuckling. Whether her students are white kids wearing jeans or Somali students in hijabs, “kids are kids,” she said. “There’s a misconception in the community that the children who come here don’t want to be here,” she said. “They want to learn. They’re soaking it up like a sponge.”

One of her students recently started at Longley. He attended school before, “but not in this country. He speaks French, Somalia and some English.” Wigant said he’s adjusting well. “Everybody already likes him.”

She’s confident her fourth-graders’ test scores will rise more than one grade level this year, one of the school improvement goals.

“Do I see them being ready for fifth-grade work?” Wigant asked. “Absolutely.”

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