LEWISTON — At Montello Elementary School on Thursday morning, the lesson was multiplication in Jessie Hartford’s fifth-grade class.

Some students worked in teams. Others, including Paige Gagnon and Julia Svor, played card games or “multiplication war,” which reinforced the multiplication table.

Maisie Whelchel challenged Maine Department of Education Acting Commissioner Jim Rier to a game of lightning.

“He did good,” Whelchel said. “To play, you put four cards down and place another card down. You have to use all four cards only once. It’s really fun.”

After touring Longley on Thursday, Rier visited Montello, a large elementary school serving about 700 students. Montello is in the first year of a three-year, $1.8 million federal grant to boost student learning.

Montello is an underperforming school, with 42 percent of students proficient in reading at grade level.

“The goal is always to improve student achievement; that’s the bottom line,” said Principal James Cliffe, who said not enough students are proficient in grade levels. “We’re not there. It’s not acceptable.”

Montello has a wide range of students, including a high number who qualify for free or reduced lunch, and 36 percent who are English Language Learners. But stagnant scores “can’t be attributed to one or two populations of students,” Cliffe said. “It’s across the board.”

The federal grant is allowing Montello to bring in teacher coaches, such as a math coach showing new ways of teaching math. It will help Montello build a stronger summer program this year to reduce summer learning loss. There’s after-school programs that help 100 students. Extra ed techs have been hired to free teachers so they can meet in teams and with coaches to strategize on how to improve learning.

After visiting classrooms, Rier met with teachers who shared what they’re doing, how coaching is helping and how the district’s teacher evaluation program — which was in place before the grant — is improving their skills.

First-grade teacher Amanda Hammond said the extra staff makes it easier for her to help individual students. Sharing an example, she said she contacted a coach saying, “’I have a couple of kids I’m concerned about.’ Right away, at 8:10 a.m., she found me,” Hammond said. “I have a lot of people I can go to for help.”

Rier said he was impressed by what he saw, and his department is interested in following Montello’s work.

“It’s helpful for us to learn some of the challenges you face,” he said. “We want to be closely in touch with you.”

He praised the educators for working as a team to help students.

“That is crucial to making the change you need to make,” he said.

Rier said his department doesn’t want to layer more tasks on schools, but to help them. What Montello learns can be shared to improve learning statewide.

“The challenges are not just for the 10 schools that have grants,” Rier said. “It goes much broader than that.”


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