Portland schools establish promising practices for all students

East End kindergartner Antonio Hernandez explains his math journal to Commissioner Bowen.

East End kindergartner Antonio Hernandez explains his math journal to Commissioner Bowen.

When I visited East End Community School and Riverton Elementary in Portland last week as part of my Promising Practices Tour, I was blown away by the measures they’re taking to ensure all students are engaged in learning—not an easy feat in such a multilingual district.

East End and Riverton were both identified as underperforming—one in 2009-10 and one in 2010-11—and applied for and received School Improvement Grants. With the help of those grants and technical assistance from the Department, the schools have initiated a number of promising practices. Last week, these schools showed me they’re doing what it takes to get things done.

East End has used its federal grant to fund STEM coaches, design a new assessment system for math, and implement flexible grouping in certain subjects. And no progress would have been made without East End’s all-star teachers, who surrender lunch hours for grade-level meetings and devote two hours to professional development every single week.

It’s the kids who are reaping the benefits. Kindergartner Antonio Hernandez couldn’t wait to show me his math journal, a project launched by teacher Sarah Griffin. She started the journal project so students could make individual resources for math practices and understand concepts in their own words. Not only were the students eager to open their journals, but the project bridges literacy and math—a very sophisticated idea for five- and six-year olds.

Under the leadership of East End’s principal, Marcia Gendron, learning doesn’t ever seem to stop. The school library is open on Saturdays, and teachers take turns bringing books to a local park to read with students during the summer. Staff also lowered student absence and tardiness rates by creating an extended learning program, called Rise and Shine, that makes students excited to come in on time. They offer between 30 and 40 activities per week, from working in garden beds to playing the ukulele—you name it, these kids are engaged in it. And the good news is that East End launched it without additional funding, so schools should be able to replicate this program across the state.

In order to turn around Riverton Elementary, Principal Jeanne Malia focused on relationships. More than half of Riverton’s students are English language learners, and many are recent immigrants. When Ms. Malia became the principal, her number-one priority was to make herself both visible and available to students and their families. With her portable microphone, she greets kids outside in the morning, in the cafeteria at lunchtime, and on their way out in the afternoon. Riverton has also hosted potluck dinners to bring families together and allow them to become more comfortable in the school setting. These kids and their parents know that Ms. Malia and her staff are there for them.

Riverton’s also finding new uses for technology, especially for their ELL students. Kids were using iPads or laptops for hands-on learning in every classroom I visited. English learners use iPad cameras to photograph staff whose names they need to learn. One Riverton student with Celiac disease even takes pictures in the cafeteria to catalog the foods she can and can’t eat. Talk about best practices—this school is really getting creative!

While Riverton and East End currently have SIG funding, those grants will be ending soon. So what happens next? Well, both of these schools have built networks around school improvement using a limited amount of resources—making most of their initiatives cost efficient and sustainable beyond the grant.

On top of everything else, the experiences at both of these schools are evidence that an unfortunate label—in this case, being labeled “persistently low achieving” schools by the U.S. Department of Education—can have its positive side. Both of these schools made a decision to move past the labels and work on improvement, with some pretty impressive results.

As a state, we need to build some support structures for educators to exchange great, low-cost ideas like these. As I continue my Promising Practices Tour, I’ll be posting more practices that stand out on the Tour website. Check out our Center for Best Practice website for additional ideas.

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