November 26, 2012

How to improve a school without Barack Obama & Arne Duncan butting in

Tom Bell, Portland Press Herald, ME Marcia Gendron greets her students at the front doors of East End Community School on Munjoy Hill. She calls each child by name and doles out hugs to a few who stop to chat. Other teachers also greet the children, who are excited to be here.

Marcia Gendron, principal of East End Community School in Portland, gets a hug from third-grader Maureen Fitzgerald at the start of a school day. Most of the 410 students come from racially diverse and poor neighborhoods.

While Gendron has ramped up the academic workload, it comes with an "eat dessert first" strategy. As soon as they arrive, students start the day with activities such as Zumba dance, chess, lacrosse, garden club, theater, music, cartooning and stop-action animation. Teachers and community members lead the classes.

The "Rise and Shine" program takes place each day from 8:15 to 8:50 a.m. and has helped students become more engaged, motivated and able to connect with adults, Gendron says.

It is part of a larger effort to turn around a school that had been among the lowest-achieving schools in the state. Gendron says children can only learn when they have established relationships with caring adults. Before she became principal here two years ago, the students seemed detached and disengaged, she says.

"Before, it was just numbers moving through the hall," she said.

The tactic has paid off: Since Gendron took over, the school's math and reading test scores have improved significantly and the school has come off the state's list of persistently low-performing schools.

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