Should student achievement on tests be the benchmark for assessing the quality of education of a school?

We think not.

From our experience of working in the field of education for many years, we have learned that some of the labeled “low-achieving” schools actually provide quality education in caring environments.

One of our professional responsibilities as faculty in the education department is to provide our pre-service teachers with authentic experiences and opportunities where best practices are being modeled by veteran teachers in a nurturing environment. For that reason, Montello Elementary School in Lewiston has been a perfect choice each year for our students to get exposed to quality teaching and learning, both within and outside the classroom.

For the past five years, junior students from Thomas College have visited the Montello school and spent a day in the classrooms in preparation for their student teaching experience.

Pre-service teachers come back from Montello with a clear understanding of how limited test scores are in defining quality education. They also recognize the importance of how a strong administration sets the climate for a smooth functioning learning community, as schools are becoming more and more diverse.

They also realize that, in order to become accomplished teachers, like those at Montello, they have to focus on educating the whole child — body, mind and soul — by providing strong academic instruction, individualized attention and a warm and caring demeanor. Much of that is reflected in their comments that follow:

“I was impressed by the dedication of Principal Jim Cliff. He wanted so much to have the school be experienced as a community and not just a school with diverse students, low socio-economic students and low test scores. Principal Cliff feels that listening to students, parents, staff and the community is important. If the community is behind you … then, you can do anything. People feel involved in something bigger, and it is intrinsically rewarding — you will have more people on board and willing to help.”

“Being at Montello was a memorial experience, mostly because of their goals of high expectations for their students, nurturing teachers, safe environments and treating students the way that you would want to be treated. Principal Jim Cliff did a fantastic job of portraying this and moving his school in a positive direction. I gained some great perspective being there, as well as new knowledge of how adorable third-graders are. As Jim Cliff said, ‘You have to be willing to learn alongside your students.’ This opportunity opened my eyes.”

“I greatly enjoyed my experience at this school and would love to visit again. I thought the teachers were absolutely amazing and managed their classrooms in a positive way.”

“Another thing I found interesting was the extensive use of explicit instructions that were specific to an individualized task; they were usually unequivocally clear and unambiguous.”

“The classroom climate was not prejudiced in any way and the teacher valued each individual student as important and part of a family who is there for each other. The daily tasks were offered to the students by the teachers; there were also many enthusiastic helpers throughout the day.”

“This experience made me realize that this is most certainly what I want to do for the rest of my life. It is so rewarding to see the students who were eager to learn and be loved. I had a great time at Montello and I wish the school were closer in distance so I could go back and visit them more often!”

“‘Wow’ is all that comes to my mind when thinking about our day today at Montello Elementary in Lewiston, Maine. Today was such a good experience and I came back feeling rewarded after spending a day in the classroom. The teacher used amazing classroom management strategies, like substituting students for friends and putting herself on the same level as her students. She was very confident in her words and when a situation arose, she was quick to make a great choice.”

“Compared to my visits to schools in low socio-economic areas in India, I was awestruck by the dedication and the enthusiasm of the teachers at Montello. The principal and his team of experienced teachers have no doubt turned challenge into an opportunity and have made a difference in the lives of the students.”

As noted by Ron Edmonds, “Effective schools have strong leadership of the principal, emphasis on mastery of basic skills, clean and orderly school environment, and high teacher expectations.”

We found the above to be evident of the climate and ethos at Montello.

Philomena McPhee Brown is a professor of education at Thomas College in Waterville. Deepika Papneja is a Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence 2013-14 at Thomas College.


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