Four Maine schools share $5 million to improve student achievement

Posted July 14, 2011, at 2:35 p.m.
Last modified July 15, 2011, at 3:06 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Department of Education has announced the recipients of more than $5 million in federal grants aimed at helping Maine schools improve student achievement.

The grants, which will provide funding to the schools for the next three years, will support locally developed plans that were submitted to the department earlier this year. Those plans range from complete curriculum overhauls to programs that target certain students to training for teachers.

The grants were given to four schools in three districts:

• The East End Community School in Portland received more than $2.7 million.

• RSU 24 received almost $1.5 million for Ellsworth High School and $337,000 for Mountain View School in Sullivan.

• Fort Kent Community High School received $846,000.

Ten schools eligible for the grants were identified by the Department of Education in April, but not all of them opted to apply. The 10 schools were identified because they receive federal Title I money — which is given to schools with a high number of economically distressed students — and were lagging behind rising federal achievement benchmarks in the No Child Left Behind program.

Two schools that applied for grants were unsuccessful because their applications did not meet the grant criteria. They were Nokomis Regional High School in Newport and Madison Area Memorial High School, according to a press release from the Department of Education.

The grants announced Thursday, which will fund positions and programs for the next three years, represent the second round of federal school improvement grants in Maine. About $10.7 million, much of it from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, was parsed out in 2010.

Though the funding likely would be welcomed at almost any school, being put on the eligibility list is not a positive experience. In 2010, the department referred to the list as the “persistently lowest-achieving schools,” which rankled some administrators and caused some school boards to reject applying for the federal money.

SAD 27 Superintendent Tim Doak said being put on the list earlier this year was a sad day that turned into an opportunity.

“I’ve been an administrator for some time,” said Doak. “The day we heard that news was one of the toughest days of my life. It affected me, it affected the community and it affected the teachers.”

Doak said he held an assembly to explain the issue to students, including the steps the district would be taking to remove Fort Kent Community High School from the list.

“I’ve found a change in the building since that day,” said Doak. “The students suddenly saw why we were forcing them to do X, Y and Z. We decided that the only positive way to do this is don’t make excuses.”

SAD 27 will hire four full-timers with the grant money: a grant coordinator, a “success coach” for students who have trouble completing homework, a math coach to work with math teachers, and a literacy coach to work with English teachers. Other changes also will greet students this fall, including new scheduling that will give them more time in math and science, updated curriculum and fresh partnerships among teachers in the district.

Doak said the district also is adopting a new system to evaluate teachers that takes into account student performance and comments and classroom observations by both administrators and peer teachers.

Nokomis Regional High School in Newport had one of the unsuccessful applications for this year’s grants. RSU 19 Superintendent William Braun said he is disappointed but no less determined to improve student performance. He said that includes a curriculum overhaul with the help of a nonprofit organization called the Great Maine Schools Partnership.

“We’re going to continue to work on it,” he said. “Obviously, another million dollars would have helped us do a lot more.”

Calls to RSU 24, which had both Ellsworth High School and Mountain View School receive school improvement funding this year, were not returned on Thursday.

Doak said he sees the beginning of the next school year like the reality show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” where builders kick a family out of their home before undertaking a frantic renovation. At the end of each episode, a bus parked in front of the home is driven away to reveal the changes suddenly to the family.

“When the kids come back, it’ll be kind of like moving that bus and it’s a whole new school,” said Doak. “We have a staff that’s ready and able to change and look at things in a new way, and we’re going to have a great school for kids in Fort Fairfield.”

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