From D to B: How One Maine School Made the Grade Leap

May 16, 2014

When last year's grades came out, educators across the state railed at Gov. Paul LePage. The governor, they complained, was labeling schools as failing - without offering enough context on the challenges, socio-economic and otherwise, that can get in the way of learning and contribute to low test scores.

  This year, the administration has done more to control the story. Each report card contains the percentage of kids at the school on free and reduced lunch. And officials with the Maine Department of Education have spent this week honoring schools that have seen their grades go up. Last year, Walker School got a D.

"I think you were maybe one of the only schools that got no points in the growth of the bottom 25 percent of students on math," says Samantha Warren, the department's communications director.

Warren passes the school's 2014 report card across a table to Education Commissioner Jim Rier, who shows it to Walker's principal, Glen Widmer. Those kids, the ones that scored in the bottom 25 percent last year in math, they're doing a lot better now.

"You got almost all of the points possible in that area," Warren says. "So clearly, you're working with those must struggling students, and so we wanted to honor that you had focused as a result of what maybe that report card revealed."

The percentage of kids who scored proficient or above in reading jumped this year too - from 52 to 73 percent. Walker's overall grade went from a D to a B, and Warren, Rier and the other state officials in the room want to know how Widmer and his team did it.

"The work at figuring out where the students are, where their needs are, we've been working on that for awhile," Widmer says.

The work, it turns out, began well before the state decided to start giving schools letter grades. It started when Widmer took over as principal three years ago.

"I'm a former math teacher, middle school math teacher. So coming from that background, I would see the kids that came up and they didn't have the foundational knowledge," Widmer says. "So it was very difficult to have such a wide range of abilities in a classroom. So what we're trying to do is narrow that down, so that the range of abilities that we're addressing is smaller in each individual classroom."

"Does anyone want to share what they've written?" says Lynne Warren, who teaches second grade. "You can share your work on the planets or you can share your timeline."

At Walker, Widmer and his team have reorganized the school into two spans - kindergarten through second grade and third through fifth grade. First graders, for example, who are already reading at a more advanced level can go to the 2nd grade classroom for their language arts instruction. And 2nd graders, who may be struggling with their reading, can work with the 1st graders.

It's a system built on foundation of proficiency. Students have to demonstrate mastery at one level before moving on. Kathy Prince teaches a grade 3 through 5 span.

"With my math students, I went ahead and made each one of them a book to take with them," so they can continue working on concepts over the summer," Prince says.

"They've got their measurement topics that they've done. It gives them something to hold in their hand and say, 'OK, by the end of fifth grade, I should have most of this and be proficient at most of it," Prince says.

Another big part of Walker's success is the school's focus on experiential and place-based learning. Students are encouraged to come up with projects with practical, real world implications to help them master reading and math. Kids, for example, work in the school's greenhouse.

Child one: "We're starting to make a book about our greenhouse and other greenhouses and the history of it."

Child two: "Sometimes we do field trips and sometimes we do, like, hands on experiments."

Child three: "We're doing this electricity unit. We're taking electrical circuits and we're making flashlights."

It's an approach to learning that's paying off at Walker School. And it's one that Glen Widmer hopes will spark the same kind of progress at the other school in the district he runs. Widmer is also principal at Troy Central School.

Tomorrow, we'll learn about how he's trying to implement some of the same approaches to learning at a school with a different set of challenges.