Kaler community responds: State grade 'blatantly not reflective' of South Portland school

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SOUTH PORTLAND — James O. Kaler Elementary School Principal Diane Lang had not expected the school’s “Kalerbration” last week to coincide with the release of Maine Department of Education letter grades for public schools.

But as a rejoinder to the state-assessed F the school received based on reading and math test scores and measurements of student progress, the May 2 event showed parents and visitors the results of the project-based learning introduced last year.

“We are on the right path,” Lang said. “The score does not represent our school and where we are.”

Throughout the school’s two floors on South Kelsey Street, kindergartners through fifth-graders explained creations and projects real and imaginary based in lessons in art, literature, science, math and technology.

In third-grade teacher Cory DiDonato’s room, Davis Herrick and his father, Peter Herrick, reviewed the human digestive tract on a life-size paper cutout covered with a vibrantly colored colon, stomach and esophagus.

“We have dinner conversations about the colon, and that is fine,” Peter Herrick said. “(The F grade) is preposterous, based on math and reading tests taken once a year. It is blatantly not reflective of this particular school.”

Lang said an initial drop in the school’s New England Common Assessment Program scores was expected as the school embraced project-based learning, but the results will show a better school and engaged, energized students.

Fifth-graders Aiden Emery and James Thebarge said their studies of ecosystems led to a cleanup around the city’s Greenbelt path.

“While we were walking, we noticed there was a lot of pollution,” Thebarge said.

Emery, Thebarge and five friends used four shopping carts they found in water near the Greenbelt to hold other refuse they collected from the trail and banks.

Aiden’s mother, Angela Emery, is co-president of the Kaler PTA and leads the gardening committee that is cultivating school property.

“The first thing (Aiden) told me was about the trash he picked up, and how people were thanking them,” she said.

David Emery, Aiden’s father, said he was offended by the failing grade, even if test scores have not measured up in comparison to other schools.

“When they say we failed, it seems we are not redeemable,” he said. “I wish they would put it differently.”

The F also reflects a statewide socio-economic pattern where schools with a higher percentage of English language learners or students who get free and reduced lunches were graded poorly by the DOE.

Lang said 28-36 Kaler students, out of about 210, require individual education plans tailored to help them progress. But the range of services needed can vary from tutoring to summer instruction to special education services.

With the introduction of project-based learning, school enrollment became city wide, and 14 students from neighborhoods outside the Kaler area now attend class at the school. Last September, a second pre-kindergarten program was established, which School Superintendent Suzanne Godin said will reduce the need for intervention and individualized education programs, or IEPs, for incoming kindergartners.

The first pre-kindergarten program for students in the Brown and Skillin school neighborhoods opened in February 2011, and none of the students entering kindergarten have needed IEPs, Godin noted last month.

Project-based learning is benefitting teachers as well, second-grade teacher Mary Catherine Short said.

Her students studied insect habitats, adaptability, diets and anatomy before creating digital presentations of imaginary insects and how they live in their environments.

“They are teaching me now,” Short said. “I know how to do a PowerPoint (presentation) now.”

On Wednesday, Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen announced the Maine Department of Education will “will reach out before the end of the current academic year to every school that received a D or an F.”

Bowen said the department will analyze data and help schools develop strategies to improve performance. Included in the effort are webinars for school staff and administration.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Sidebar Elements

Kaler Elementary School fifth-grader Chelsea Morin explains an ecosystem food chain at “Kalerbration” last week in South Portland. The event highlighted the school’s project-based learning methods, and coincided with the state’s release of a public school report card that gave the school a failing grade.

Peter Herrick, left, with his son, Davis, at Kaler School in South Portland. Herrick called a state-assessed F performance grade for the school “preposterous.”

Kaler School first-grader Andrea Dimauro shows her mother, Jen Dimauro, the beginings of an oudoor gardening project during “Kalerbration” on May 2.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.