Laura Richards School overcomes CIPS status, surpasses standards

First grade teacher Laurie Malcolm (upper left) studies shapes with the Reiter family during Math Mania night at Laura E. Richards School.

Being identified as a Continuous Improvement Priority School in 2009 was devastating for staff at Laura E. Richards School in Gardiner.

Too few students were meeting the targets in mathematics according to the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Now, after two years of hard work by Principal Karen Moody, her staff and the entire school community, students at Laura Richards have surpassed the targets in both math and reading.

The educators’ attitude toward surmounting CIPS status was key to the school’s progress. “When you’re labeled as CIPS, everybody looks at you differently,” said Katie Smith, second grade teacher. “We had to get into the mindset that it’s something we can use as a positive growth, and it really pulled us together rather than tearing us apart.”

Moody’s number-one priority was to create a positive school climate. “You have to have people who trust each other and support each other before you get to the hard work,” Moody explained.

With her goals in mind, Moody instigated bi-weekly teacher meetings during which the entire staff collaborated on the school’s plan of action. A combination of solutions ultimately fostered their success.

“Laura Richards’ staff took the professional development strategies they had learned from experts and implemented them school-wide,” said George Tucker, school improvement consultant. “It’s easy to learn tactics, but they’re not as easy to put in place.” Laura Richards is one of only a handful of schools in Maine that have overcome CIPS status recently.

Using CIPS federal funding and a small percentage of the school’s allotted Title I funding, the school was able to start hosting Math Mania nights for students and their families. At the last Math Mania night, 190 of Laura Richards’ 248 students attended. “The parents are playing more games with their kids, which was our main goal,” said kindergarten teacher Taryn Grant.

Instructors have redesigned their assessments to encourage and reflect students’ higher level thinking abilities. “We keep raising the bar, and the students rise to the occasion,” Moody said. “Once you really target your instruction, the kids come with you.”

Laura Richards’ staff members emphasize strong leadership and a community effort as primary contributors to the school’s success. Still, first grade teacher Laurie Malcolm says they don’t have a recipe to offer other CIPS. “I think every school has to struggle through its own situation and come up with a plan that works for them,” Malcolm said.

When Laura Richards’ first went into CIPS status – meaning the school had not “made Adequate Yearly Progress” for two years in a row – only 41 percent of the students exiting the pre-K-2 school were proficient or above in math (as tested at their third-grade school). Now the percentage of students proficient has nearly doubled, to 78 percent. This year’s target for math was 70 percent of students proficient, meaning Laura Richards’ students, teachers and administrators are back on track, and then some.

While being labeled a CIPS school may discourage educators, the staff at Laura Richards seized the opportunity to better their school. “CIPS has really been a blessing because it has reinforced what we knew we needed to do,” Smith said. “There’s a glow when you come in here. We overcame the challenges, and we’ve become even more amazing.”

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