AUBURN — The challenges and accomplishments of neighborhood schools were the focus of a community meeting Thursday night.

It was the first Auburn Community Conversation meeting of 2016, an opportunity for residents to learn about city and Auburn School Department programs and to air their concerns and suggestions.

While open to everyone in the city, Thursday’s meeting was meant for residents of Auburn Wards 1 through 4, and specifically the neighborhoods around Edward Little High School and Park Avenue and Washburn Elementary schools.

“Auburn is unique in that we’ve really committed to having neighborhood elementary schools,” Mayor Jonathan LaBonte said. “I think it is a way to attract families here and keep them here, and it’s given us ability to work through (Parent Teacher Organization) networks and neighborhood watch networks.”

LaBonte gave an eight-minute presentation on ways residents can learn more about the city and have their voices heard: through the city’s website,; on Facebook and Twitter; and by watching public meetings on Great Falls TV on cable television and online at

Vickie Gaylord, principal at Park Avenue Elementary School, said her school is diverse but crowded. Students there speak 19 languages and the population is 388 students. The school was built to support 325.

Washburn Elementary Administrator Laurie Shaw said her school has made great strides in recent years, improving education to the poorest section of the city.

The school has seen state test scores improve even as poverty has increased, as judged by the number of students getting free or reduced-price lunches.

Shaw said her greatest challenge is students who move from school to school and city to city.

“If we have kids for any length of time, they are going to improve academically,” Shaw said. “When they are in and out, in and out, they are constantly starting over. But if you look at the data, we have rocked it with the kids we’ve been able to teach for more than a year.”

That spurred discussion about where the city could help. LaBonte said the city has resources such as federal block grants.

“What would stop the city from having a case management system?” LaBonte asked. “If a family has to move, why? Did their unit get condemned? Did their landlord evict them because they couldn’t pay rent? The city has tools, and rather than having them in buckets of money and making people come in to apply, maybe we can be more targeted.”

Edward Little High School Principal Jim Miller said his school’s biggest challenge is the building itself. It needs to be replaced, but that has forced the department to work more creatively with the city and the community. His school partners with local farmers and businesses, and city officials come into the school and lead programs.

“It’s really been a silver lining to go out and look for different ways to provide education for our students,” Miller said. “We’ve provided some service for them; they’ve provided education for us.”

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The next neighborhood meeting is at 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 28, in the community room at East Auburn School.

At 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 4, the series goes to the gymnasium at Walton School. The last one is at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 9, in the band room at Auburn Middle School.

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