SOUTH PORTLAND — Students, parents and teachers gathered Tuesday at Kaler Elementary School to welcome the new school year and a new instructional model designed to produce more student engagement and higher test scores.
This year, Kaler will practice “project-based learning.” Teachers will integrate many subjects in long-term projects, where students answer a “driving question.”
For example, students in kindergarten will be taught reading, writing, simple biology and public speaking in completing a project to share the story and life cycle of a monarch butterfly with their family and friends. The instruction will build community connections by engaging the students with the Maine Audubon Society and other community members.
The idea is that in the integrated pursuit of a long-term project, students will be more engaged, which Superintendent Suzanne Godin said will lead to more student achievement.
Godin and Kaler Principal Diane Lang emphasized to parents that while the instructional model may be changing, students will still learn all the necessary skills required by learning results standards.
“We’re not changing the curriculum, we’re changing the instruction,” Godin said. “They’ll have the same curricula requirements as the rest of the district; it’s how we get to it that will be different.”
It’s part of the “Kaler Renewal,” a process that officially began in January when a new vision and mission for Kaler was approved by the School Board.
Godin said Kaler faces two problems: low attendance and less-than adequate progress toward meeting state standards on the part of poorer students and students with learning disabilities.
Information provided by the district shows that last year, Kaler had more of these students than any other school in the city. More than 53 percent of Kaler’s 233 students received free or reduced-cost lunch, while 28 percent were classified as special education students.
Those percentages are higher than Skillin, South Portland’s largest elementary school, where last year just under 53 percent of its 415 students were low income and 16 percent were in special education.
Project-based learning, Godin said, tackles both attendance and performance. The creative, integrated, goal-oriented instruction will engage students, making them less likely to want to miss school.
From there, students will have a bigger desire to succeed. They’ll become, to a certain extent, self-driven.
“When you engage children, then they realize why they’re learning something,” Lang said. “That’s when you’ve got them hooked.”
To commemorate the change, the school is even expected to get a new name. If the School Board approves, the South Kelsey Street school will be renamed The James Otis Kaler Community School of Exploration and Inquiry.
Lang said the changes are a push toward upgrading the school for the 21st century. The traditional model of teaching, she said, comes from the country’s past as an agrarian, industrial society, when not much more than basic math and the ability to read and write were necessary.
“We’re a global society now,” she said. “That’s got to drive us to change. We’ve changed a little with the times, but not nearly enough,” she said. Today, students need applied skills and knowledge, community connections and the ability to co-operate and work in teams. She said working together on projects that integrate all areas of study will teach those skills.
To prepare for the new model, Kaler’s teachers participated this summer in a three-day training at The Buck Institute for Education, a nonprofit organization that pushed for project-based learning.
“I think it’s very exciting,” said second-grade teacher Carrie Lawler. This school year will be her fifth at Kaler, and she said she isn’t scared or worried about the changes.
“Project-based learning is something new and different,” she said. “And different can often mean better.”
Another part of Kaler’s renewal is a renewed push for a “community feeling,” Godin said. One way the school hopes to facilitate that is by serving a small breakfast – fruit and milk, for example – to students at the beginning of the school day. Students will eat with each other and their teacher, which Godin said will foster an important bond.
“It’s an opportunity to get teachers involved with their students, so they really know them,” Godin said. “It goes back to that community system. If we think of ourselves as a community of learners, there is a better chance for students to succeed.”
Teachers at Kaler Elementary School wear T-shirts on Tuesday proclaiming the school’s new practice of project-based learning.
Students, teachers and parents make their way into Kaler Elementary School for the annual open house Tuesday, Aug. 30.