Pupils in Ed Kelley’s first-grade classroom at the Downeast School sat around a large flip chart reciting poems about winter and “signing” the verses with their hands at the same time.
Kelley, a 20-year teaching veteran, believes poetry and sign language are a natural combination that keeps his pupils interested. Traditional books “just didn’t seem to grab the kids,” said Kelley.
He began experimenting with instructional techniques that combined written words and sign language five years ago in an effort to make education more concrete for his pupils.
Kelley’s efforts plus those of other teachers and administrators appear to have paid off in dramatically higher test scores for pupils when they move on to the fourth grade. That’s a significant accomplishment in a school where three-quarters of the pupils qualify for free federally subsidized lunches, double the percentage for the city.
In the past four years, fourth-grade reading scores for former Downeast School pupils on the Maine Educational Assessment Test have jumped 115 points, while math scores have climbed 66 points. Scores in science have increased 103 points, and humanities 62 points.
While gains registered by former Downeast pupils have outpaced those of other fourth graders in the city, especially in reading and science, their average scores still remain the lowest in the city, and below state averages as well.
Educators and school administrators say there’s no single factor that has prompted the dramatic changes in the school. Principal Dorothy Pratt believes that the increases are the result of changes in curriculum, teaching methods, expectations and changes within the community itself.
Concerned that the school’s programs may not be meeting the needs of all the pupils, five years ago Pratt began prodding teachers to make fundamental changes in the classroom.
Projects are required. Teachers have instituted classrooms where second- and third-graders work together. Some, like Kelley, have sought to integrate language and speech skills through some nontraditional methods.
The changes give teachers more freedom to experiment. The result is teachers are becoming more excited about their jobs, Pratt said.
“When teachers get really excited about it, the chances are they are going to do an excellent job and things are going to change for the kids in their classrooms,” she said. “We never improve unless we try something new.”
School teachers are revamping how they teach science and mathematics. Science experiments, for instance, have replaced emphasis on reading assignments in textbooks and lectures.
As a result of more emphasis on hands on learning, first-grade teacher Barbara Fratini has removed textbooks and workbooks from her classroom, where she teaches jointly with Bonnie Arsenault.
Pupils may cut open an apple to examine the seeds, which are later planted. They study the growth of the sprouting apple tree. They also examine the apple through the various stages of decomposition.
“We’ve taken the learning out of the textbook, put the text aside and made the learning real,” Fratini said.
It’s not only the changes within the classrooms and school that have helped bolster test scores, according to educators, but also changes in the community itself.
In the past four years, Pratt has seen the number of parents working in the school on a regular basis nearly double. And she believes there’s been an increase in the number of parents working with their children at home, serving as positive role models and demonstrating the importance of education.