Behind The Scenes At a Struggling Elementary School

May 19, 2014

Walker School in Liberty made impressive gains over the past year. The 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. 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. That's well below the state average of 61%. But numbers like these tell only a tiny sliver of the bigger story going on at Troy.

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

Troy School second grade teacher Nicole Hewes helps a student with a math problem.
Credit Jay Field

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," says Widmer. "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," says Widmer. "You've got to believe that, right? To make it happen, you've got to believe it can happen and I do."

Improvement is already taking place 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. Nicole Hewes's second grade 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," says Hewes. "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."

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 second grade classroom, until he shows he's ready to move on. Kids at Walker School are already moving around between spans this way. 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 seeing improvement.

"Our PTO meetings are half parents, half staff," says Emily Holmes, who heads Troy's parent teacher organization. "The principal comes to every single meeting. And so does half of our staff. So that's pretty remarkable for our school."

In past years, the group's influence on school life has been inconsistent.

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

The PTO is working together to build a new playground at Troy and parents have stepped up to help. Emily Holmes says 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.