LEWISTON — Seconds after Maine Acting Education Commissioner Jim Rier walked into a Longley Elementary classroom Thursday, he heard the school chant from third-graders.

Wearing a smile and a purple head scarf, Hawo Tawane stood up to lead.

“Nice loud, proud voice,” teacher Rebecca Belleau coached.

“Longley Lions roar with pride,” she sang. Students repeated the line in a military cadence call. “We have courage deep inside. No excuses is our rule. We take pride in Longley school. ROAR!”

Rier and his entourage smiled and applauded.

Maine education leaders came to Lewiston on Thursday to observe how federal school-improvement grant money was helping student achievement at one of the poorest neighborhoods in Maine. All of the 370 students qualified for free or reduced school lunches, and nearly 65 percent of the students are immigrants learning English. Longley qualified for a $2 million, three-year federal grant in 2010 because of persistently low test scores.

Accompanying Rier was Department of Education Chief Academic Officer Rachelle Tome and local school leaders, including Superintendent Bill Webster and Maine School Board Vice Chairman Peter Geiger.

“Welcome,” Belleau said to the group, telling students, “All these wonderful people are visiting our school today to see how awesome we are.”

Rier toured the school and talked to principals, coaches and teachers as classes of tiny students filed past.

He sat on a fourth-grade chair and watched a video of leadership teaching teams going over lessons, talking about what was done right and what could be better.

Rier observed a group of fifth- and sixth-grade teachers strategizing about how to boost reading skills of underperforming students.

“We have a lot of students in upper grades not reading at grade level,” Assistant Principal Jana Mates said.

The group was figuring out how best to help individual students, questioning whether there was enough individual help for students built into the schedule, and how to balance pullout time with classroom time.

“I think what you’re doing is extremely appropriate,” Rier said to the group. “I love the fact that you’re all around the table, thinking about how to meet the needs of students, and you’re not sitting in different places, which might have been done before.”

It will lead, he said, to better lessons.

Rier said he came to Longley to learn.

“One of our highest priorities is to be able to serve schools more effectively and seeing approaches that appear to be working very well,” Rier said. “And I love being in places where kids are.”

What the federal school-improvement grant did for Longley “was get us on the path toward using best practices,” said St. Andre, who announced this week that she’s retiring.

Changes at Longley include coaches for teachers, more technology, more time for lessons with after-school enrichment programs and a summer school program.

“The summer program has been the most bang for our buck,” St. Andre said. It’s helped students not lose learning over the summer, she added.

Although the federal grant expired in June, a John T. Gorman Foundation grant is allowing Longley and other Lewiston schools to expand summer programs.

Test scores in the past two years have shown “slow but steady growth,” St. Andre said. In 2009, 17 percent of Longley’s population was proficient in reading, 33 percent was partially proficient and 49 percent was substantially below average. In 2011, 19 percent was proficient, 35 percent was partially proficient and 45 percent fell substantially below proficiency.

“Kids at Longley are learning and getting what they need,” St. Andre said. “For being in the fourth year, we’re in a good place. We’ve set a solid foundation.”

Scores don’t show the whole picture, St. Andre said, adding that eventually, the city needs to do what’s best for all Lewiston students, or redistrict so one small school doesn’t have such a high population of struggling, mobile and poor students.

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