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Behind The Scenes At a Struggling Elementary School
05/16/2014   Reported By: Jay Field

Part one of this series featured an elementary school in Liberty that made impressive gains over the past year. Walker School's grade on it's 2014 state report card jumped from a D to a B. Thanks to budget cuts, Walker now shares its principal with another elementary school in the district, Regional School Unit 3. Troy Central School moved from an F to a D this year. According to the state, it's still struggling. But a visit to Troy revealed the same kind of energy and programs in place that eventually allowed Walker School to become more successful. Walker was one of just a few schools, handpicked by the state this week, for special visits from Maine's Education Commissioner.

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Jim Rier's tour featured schools that had made substantial improvement on their state report cards. Troy Central School didn't come anywhere close to making this elite list. The number of Troy Students, for example, who scored at or above proficient in Math dropped from 33% to 31% this year---well below the state average of 61%. But numbers like these, said principal Glen Widmer, tell only a tiny sliver of the bigger story going on at Troy.

"That was just based on one test, the NECAP test," Widmer said. "So, it's kind of an arbitrary way of figuring out the success of a school."

Two years ago, with RSU 3 facing budget pressures, district officials decided to merge the principal positions at Walker and Troy and invited Widmer to apply. He's at Troy Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The school, Widmer admits, has some additional challenges that Walker doesn't. Parental involvement, so critical to success in the classroom, wasn't quite as strong when Widmer arrived and each of the two years Widmer has been here has brought lots of new kids.

"I looked at the number of kids that were coming in in the fall and 22% of those kids hadn't been here the previous year," he said. "So there's high turnover in the student body."

And high rates of kids who live at or below 130% of the federal poverty level. Research shows a link between higher levels of poverty and lower levels of student achievement. Walker and Troy have roughly the same number of students, a little over 80. 63% of the kids at Walker get free and reduced lunch compared to 82% of students at Troy.

"I think that we can overcome that....that through good educational practices we can overcome that," he said. "You've got to believe that, right? To make it happen, you've got to believe it can happen and I do."

Widmer said improvement is already happeNing at Troy, even if the state report card doesn't show it yet. The school, not surprisingly, is using the same approaches that have led to growth and success at Walker.

As at Walker school, classrooms at Troy are divided into so-called spans. Hughes's class is part of the kindergarten through second grade span. As part of her professional development process, Hughes meets regularly for best practice and brainstorming sessions with a reading specialist, Wider, who oversees math instruction, and the other teachers in her span.

"We are talking about ways we can meet the needs of our students because what you find, if you are an elementary teacher, is I have students in here who are maybe on a first grade level on some things and maybe at a fifth grade level on other things," Hughes said.

The goal is to eventually allow kids to move back and forth between the different grade level classrooms based on their proficiency in reading, math and other subjects. If a kid is a fourth grader, but reads at a second grade level, he would do his reading in the 2nd grade classroom, until he shows he's ready to move on. Kids at Walker School are already moving around between spans this way. Widmer said it's a big reason math and reading proficiency at the school have improved so much. Another is the high level of parental involvement, an area where Troy is also moving in the right direction.

"Our PTO meetings are half parents, half staff," Widmer said. "The principal comes to every single meeting. And so does half of our staff. So that's pretty remarkable for our school."

Emily Holmes is President of Troy's parent teacher organization. She said the group's influence on school life has been inconsistent in past years.

"So when we came in, brand new group of mothers and fathers, we kinda said, Ok, let's get Troy School back to being centered around the children," Holmes said. "And what we can do to better their loves and educational experience here at the school."

The PTO is working together to build a new playground at Troy. Holmes said parents, at least so far, have stepped up to help when asked. She said she's confident the school is on the right track and will see its kids continue to improve in the years ahead and she hasn't spent much time looking at Troy's report card from the state.

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