SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Hallways at James O. Kaler Elementary School were lively Wednesday afternoon, five days ahead of the arrival of students for a new school year on South Kelsey Street.
A new security system was installed, teachers were setting up classrooms and principal Diane Lang was leading new students on a tour. Later in the day, parents and students were welcomed at an open house.
Despite a failing grade given to the elementary school by the state Department of Education in May, Kaler will continue the project-based approach to teaching and learning.
“We already knew our strengths and weaknesses. We will continue with our plan because it is going well,” Lang said after conducting a tour for Heidi Hendrickson and her sons, Jacob and Anthony Montalvan.
Jacob decided to transfer to Kaler from Wentworth Intermediate School in Scarborough. Anthony will start kindergarten. Hendrickson said she liked what the school could offer her children.
“It is very comfortable, kind of what Jacob is used to,” she said.
Lang said about 210 students will enroll at the kindergarten-through-fifth-grade school, which also has a preschool program. Kaler is open to city-wide enrollment; last year, 17 families transferred or entered students there from other parts of the city. This year, three families have taken advantage of open enrollment.
The comfort and communal feel of “project-based learning” is a point of pride for teachers Nikki Remsen and Tom Biskup. They said it is learning that transcends the snapshot scores of tests taken once a year in reading and math.
The first-ever letter grades for state public schools were compiled by adding math and reading proficiency scores on a scale of 100; three-year average academic growth on a scale of 100, and academic growth by the bottom quarter of students on a scale of 50, for a maximum of 400 points.
Kaler was rated seventh-worst in the state, which angered Remsen, who has taught for seven years at the school, and Biskup, who was completing his first year of teaching.
“It’s a paper-and-pencil test that doesn’t measure depth of understanding,” Biskup said. “The grade does not reflect the quality of the staff or the type of learning that takes place.”
Remsen taught first- and second-graders before the advent of project-based learning, which combines real world experience with critical thinking in a way that allows individual talents to emerge.
“I would have loved to learn this way,” she said about her years as a student in city schools. Remsen and Biskup each graduated from South Portland High School.
About a month after the grades were assigned, Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen announced department measures to help underperforming schools. Lang said she joined other city administrators watching a webinar explaining the grading methodology.
She also received a department survey asking what was being done to improve achievement and how the state could help.
“We told them not to label a school by a single grade on a single test,” Lang said. ‘We asked them to provide professional development and funding to support the plan in place, to partner with us as opposed to pointing fingers.”
Project-based learning will expand this year, beginning with a school-wide trip to Southern Maine Community College to immerse students in campus life. Kaler students will meet instructors, tour dorms and eat at the college cafeteria as a way to show the attractions of a higher education.
Last year’s project-based learning projects required students to create their own insects using lessons about habitat and adaptability. Remsen recalled a visit from a University of Maine professor helped emphasize that learning could have real-world benefits.
Students also visited businesses that Remsen and Biskup said they might not have otherwise learned much about.
“Your job after school might be connected to what you are doing here,” Biskup said.
Lang said parents and students can expect more of the same this year.
“We are flourishing, we have not let [the state grade] get us down,” she said. “We would never grade one child on his whole entire being on one test on one day.”
As Hendrickson filled out enrollment forms for her sons, the boys scrambled out to the playground on a sunny afternoon. Returning flushed, sweaty and smiling, Jacob looked happy to be making the school switch.
“I was out playing with the new kids,” he told his mother.