May 31, 2013

State education boss visits Canaan, Skowhegan elementary schools

'We are looking for what is working and things that other schools might like to know about or use,' Stephen Bowen says of Promising Practices Tour

By Rachel Ohm
Staff Writer

CANAAN — Fifth-grade teacher Mike Louder said his students enjoy their daily reading workshop, and they agree.

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Fifth-grade teacher Michael Louder works in a small group with students at Canaan Elementary School during a reading workshop Friday. The school was one of two in Skowhegan-based School Administrative District 54 that Department of Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen visited that day.

Staff photo by Rachel Ohm

click image to enlarge

Department of Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen visited Canaan Elementary School on Friday.

Staff photo by Rachel Ohm

The class begins with a group lesson before students embark on three 15-minute sessions including small group work with their teacher, a computerized reading program and independent reading.

"It's fun. We get to type instead of having to write, and we learn about things like Egypt," said Austin Nadeau, 11, of Canaan, during a recent class.

When students finish a book, he said, they take a computerized test and must get at least 70 percent of the questions correct in order to read another book of their choice.

It's part of a workshop-style classroom that allows students to work individually as well as in a small group and was introduced through the school's academic coaching program, a system of professional development that helps teachers learn what's new in the field and integrate it into their classrooms.

Principal Steve Swindells said both things — the workshops and the academic coaches — have helped make his school successful despite a high poverty rate among students.

The school recently earned a B letter grade on a state report card measuring achievement on standardized tests and student progress over time and on Firday received a visit from state Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen.

"We are the only B school in our section of the state. I think they were interested to see what we do differently," Swindells said.

On Friday, Canaan Elementary School, along with the Bloomfield Elementary School in Skowhegan, were the last stops on a state tour by Bowen. Over the last few months, Bowen has toured schools all over the state as part of his Promising Practices Tour, which highlights innovative practices at schools throughout the state. One thing he said the department has been interested in exploring is how they can provide better support for small schools in rural communities such as Canaan.

"We are looking for what is working and things that other schools might like to know about or use. That way, the department can share the best practices with other districts and figure out how we can better support what is working," Bowen said.

Like Swindells, Bowen said he identified two promising practices at the Canaan school. He said he chose to visit the school because he was interested in its coaching model, which gives teachers access to professional development; and the workshop model for the classroom, which integrates technology and customized learning.

Skowhegan-based School Administrative District 54's other towns are Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock and Smithfield. The district has 10 academic coaches, one for each school, whose job is to provide professional development to teachers as well as assist in day-to-day classroom duties, Superintendent Brent Colbry said.

The coaches are paid for through Title I, a federally funded education program that supplements funds to schools with the highest concentration of student poverty rates, Colbry said. According to the Department of Education, 70 percent of students at the Canaan school qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

The district has a partnership with the University of Maine, where the coaches receive training and continual professional development, said Heidi Goodwin, head academic coach for the district.

"At the university, we learn how to work with adults and increase our knowledge base. We can apply that to help the classroom teachers, and that in turn increases student learning," she said.

Samantha Warren, director of communications for the department, said Title I funding is available to about 400 schools in Maine but that not all of them receive enough money to fund coaches. Academic coaches are a growing trend, but Warren said it is difficult to estimate how many there are throughout the state because they are often called different things, including "interventionist," "curriculum specialist" or specifically a literacy or mathematics coach.

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