LEWISTON — Getting an F from the Maine Department of Education “stings,” Montello Elementary School Principal Jim Cliffe said Wednesday.

“It stings because our staff knows the kind of work we’re doing here,” he said, calling their work far from an F.

On Thursday, letter grades for every public school in Maine will be released by the Maine Department of Education, an initiative of Gov. Paul LePage.

Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster released his district’s grades on Wednesday.

Montello and Longley elementary schools received F’s; Martel Elementary, Lewiston Middle School and Lewiston High School got D’s. Farwell, Geiger and McMahon elementary got C’s.

The grades are largely based on test scores given to elementary students in October and to high school juniors in May.

High school grades are also affected by how many students take the SAT; if less than 95 percent take the test, the school’s rating goes down a letter grade.

Lewiston High School’s grade would have been a C if three more students had taken the test.

Losing a letter grade because three students didn’t take the test is troubling, Webster said. “Last year, we provided transportation. We called people, knocked on doors. We offered free food. We had a free iPad drawing. Despite all those things, only 94.1 percent took the test,” he said.

Webster said that with Lewiston students, unlike those in richer districts, some are dealing with homelessness or tough lives that puts education at the bottom of their priority list.

While grading schools can be helpful to parents, Webster said he wished “the formula accurately reflected what’s going on in our schools.” The elementary school grades are largely based on tests taken by students in October, which reflect student learning the previous year.

If he traded all of his Lewiston teachers for teachers in a more affluent district, he predicted Lewiston scores would go down. Lewiston teachers are doing quality work, he said.

The two schools that got F’s “are not failing schools,” Webster said. “Our educators at Montello and Longley are working hard to improve student learning and more than one teacher is pleased to have their own children attend the schools.”

The grades reflect the needs of many Longley and Montello students, including high rates of low-income families and English language learning students.

Those students are not proficient at their grade levels, “but they are getting an excellent education,” Webster said.

Montello is a pre-K through grade six school of 700 students, of which 36 percent are ELL students and 77 percent are from low-income families that qualify students for free or reduced school lunches, compared to the state average of 44 percent.

An under-performing school, 42 percent of students are proficient in reading. Montello is in the first of three years of a federal $1.8 million school improvement grant.

A grade of F was not unexpected, Cliffe said. “Our scores aren’t good. They aren’t acceptable, but they tell only part of the story.”

The school is challenged by a large low-income population and many students who are learning English. “Our staff is good about not making those as excuses,” Cliffe said.

If parents or community members have concerns about Montello getting an F, “I would say I could appreciate you having some angst. It’s a natural reaction. Secondly, it’s not acceptable,” Cliffe said. “We can do better. We’re working towards that.”

Changes underway at Montello from the school improvement grant include more time for students to learn from more after-school programs and an upcoming summer program. During five weeks in July and August this year, students can attend four hours a day, with field trips each Friday that tie into lessons.

So far, 250 students have signed up, Cliffe said. Quality summer programs have proven to reduce summer learning loss.

Also, Montello has created new ways of involving parents with their students’ education, including an open house before school starts in the fall, rather than after. There have been two well-attended parent-teacher conferences, at which teachers reached out to parents to bring them in, even holding some conferences over the phone. That resulted in many classes seeing 100 percent participation from parents, Cliffe said.

Montello has a new math coach working with teachers to help make learning more effective and has created a new leadership team made up of teachers and parents.

“It takes time to lay that foundation, three to four years for a transformation,” Cliffe said.

He’s proud of his staff and his students. “We have a staff who is tireless. They’re caring.” As required by the federal grant, “they’re highly qualified. Equally, we love our kids,” Cliffe said. “We like to brag about our kiddos.”

He offered an invitation for people to visit Montello “and see what we do, what it looks like.” He paused, smiled and said, “Bring ID.”

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