LEWISTON — It’s no secret that Longley Elementary student test scores have lagged far below state averages.

It’s been that way for years for the school in the poorest neighborhood of the city, where 100 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

What is changing, said Principal Kristie Clark, is how much more students are learning.

“Our claim to fame is our students met their reading and math growth targets,” Clark recently told the Lewiston School Committee. “It’s exciting data.”

Title I schools (typically schools with high numbers of poor families), have to hit certain percentages of student growth in learning. Longley was projected to have 67 percent of students move forward in math last year.

“But 77 percent of students hit their growth target in math,” Clark said with a big smile.

“In reading, our target was 54 percent. We hit 63 percent,” she said. “So that told us our kids are learning. They’re moving. We may not be at the proficiency benchmark, but we’re getting there. Research tells us that kids who have yearly growth in academics will catch up.”

How much students grow is individualized, but all are expected to have one academic year of growth or more.

In other Longley statistics, the student population has grown from 360 last year to 421 this year.

Of the students, 63 percent have limited English speaking skills and are in English Language Learner programs. About 25 percent of Lewiston students are from families in which English is not the first language. 

For daily attendance, Longley has a 96.2 percent rate.

A positive school culture among staff is critical for students to succeed, Clark said, adding that Longley has that.

“We believe in them, no matter what they bring to us every morning. We still love them.” The culture, started by former Principal Linda St. Andre, “is that they’re our kids. They’re not just ‘my kids.’”

Teachers know other teachers’ students and take ownership, Clark said. They coach each other about individual students and analyze growth data.

To get that culture means hiring the right teachers, Clark said. Not everyone would be comfortable working in a school with such high-need students, she said. “We really have to look for the right fit.”

Other ways students are given more support include an after-school enrichment program, professional development and coaching for staff, a longer preschool day for 4-year-olds and a summer program.

Longley staffers can’t change the fact that students come from poor families, but the school has a no-excuse policy, Clark said.

“If they don’t have books to read at home, we get them books,” she said. “We have students who may need jackets and mittens. We get them. When they walk through the door, we support them.”

Longley students often start school academically behind their peers. That doesn’t mean they won’t find success, Clark said.

“Just because students live on Birch Street doesn’t mean they can’t be held to high expectations,” she said. “Walking in the door, kids know that’s expected of them.”

In 2010 the School Committee agreed to accept nearly $2 million in federal money to improve student learning at Longley, which designated it a “turn-around” school. It meant Longley had to hire a new principal, change half of its teachers and make changes, including hiring teacher coaches, more professional development, more interacting with parents and new student programs.

The latest year of state proficiency scores is 2014 when 16.5 percent of Longley students were proficient (grade level) in math and 18.2 percent in reading. The scores aren’t dramatically different than 2011, the first year of the changes.

“Substantial change takes time,” Clark said. “This community knows what Longley has been through as a turn-around school. Now we’re keeping the train moving in the right direction.”

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