PHILLIPS — Three things make Phillips Elementary School successful, according to Principal Felecia Pease.

A supportive community, experienced staff members and consistent expectations are the reasons why the school was one of only 42 elementary and middle schools to receive an A under a new letter grading system unveiled by Gov. Paul LePage earlier this month, Pease said.

“I’m not surprised with the grade, because we are consistent. I knew it would be at least a B,” Pease said.

Two other schools in Phillips-based School Administrative District 58 also received A’s — Stratton Elementary School in Stratton, as well as Strong Elementary School in Strong, where Pease is also the principal.

The A-to-F grading system uses standardized test scores in reading and mathematics, students’ growth and progress, and the performance and growth of the bottom 25 percent of students to produce its evaluations. For high schools, graduation rates also are a factor.

The grades were distributed on a bell-shaped curve, with most schools in the area and the state receiving C’s. Phillips, Stratton and Strong were the only schools in their area to receive A’s.

All three of the small kindergarten-through-grade 8 schools in rural Franklin County have about 175 students or fewer. The things that make the schools successful are also the things that help students do well on state tests and in turn help the schools do well on the state evaluations, Pease said.

“Because of these things, students know tests are important. They know why learning is important. They take all the knowledge they are given and they give back 100 percent,” she said.

A supportive community

The Phillips school is a K-through-8 school with elementary students taking classes on the first floor and middle school students upstairs. Thomas said she likes the structure and that older students take an interest in looking after younger children.

“Everybody here knows each other. It’s small, and the biggest class is around 23 students,” said Brandon Haines, 14, an eighth-grader at Phillips.

Pease said that feeling of community is one thing that allows the schools to be successful. Originally from Windham, Pease has been a principal at the Strong school for 26 years and took over as principal at Phillips two years ago.

The Phillips school has about 45 staff members, including teachers and support staff members such as bus drivers and custodians. Most are originally from the area or live there now, she said.

“Everyone is part of the community, and they contribute to the learning environment,” she said.

The school also receives support from parents and others.

For one thing, the school’s parent-teacher organization has a broader reach than most, said Diana Thomas, a school board member who has a son in the third grade. Known as Concerned Area Residents for Education, or CARE, it is also made up of people from the community who may not have ever had children in the school.

“People are very involved, and it’s not just parents. Of course, we are busy and it can be frustrating trying to find time, but we really do have a supportive community,” Thomas said.

Sibyl Stevens, the school’s volunteer coordinator and chairwoman of the CARE group, said the school has around 200 volunteers. Most are parents, but teachers also volunteer; and many parents whose children have grown up and left the school remain active, she said. They organize the back-to-school barbecue, help with head lice checks and work in classrooms and the school cafeteria, she said.

The school’s annual Halloween celebration includes a parade through town and a party that is open to residents of Phillips and their children, regardless of whether they go to the school, Stevens said.

Thomas said she started bringing her son when he was 3 years old.

“It’s something small, but it shows children that they are cared about. When they feel that kind of support, they can believe in themselves and do well,” she said.

Phillips Town Manager Elaine Hubbard said the school is vital to the community.

Hubbard said she doesn’t have children, but she recognizes that most people have a connection to the school, which is also used for the annual Town Meeting and community suppers. Many people collect returnable bottles to help fund the eighth-grade class trip.

“When you have a school in your community, it’s a way for people to get involved. People come together around the children,” she said.

Veteran staff

In kindergarten through fourth grade, students have one teacher for each grade who works with them in all subjects. When they move upstairs to the middle school, they have subject teachers who usually stay with them from grades five through eight.

Pease said the school has 10 classroom teachers and two special education teachers. It also has two teachers that are provided for by Title I, a federal law that gives additional support to schools with high poverty rates.

The teaching staff has, on average, 15 to 20 years of experience, Pease said. The newest teacher has been there four years, and others have been there as long as 30 years, she said.

“The teachers are experienced and they’re available to help us,” said Marya Beedy, 14, of Phillips, an eighth-grader and algebra student in Vern Voter’s class.

Voter has taught fifth-through-eighth grade mathematics at Phillips for 23 years. He is originally from the area and said he feels rooted in the community.

“We have very little turnover in staff. Everyone has been here quite a while,” he said. Because the school is small, Voter said, he also gets to spend more time with students as they progress from grade to grade.

“I teach the same kids from when they are in fifth grade through the time they finish eighth grade. It really lets me get to know them and know how they learn,” he said.

Across the hall from his classroom at Phillips is another teacher who has been at the school for years. Nicole Levesque has taught language arts for 12 years. She said having a staff that works together and good communication throughout the school is important.

“Everyone on the staff is focused on one goal,” she said. In addition to a good education, the goal is to impart a sense of responsibility and respect to students, she said.

Communication with students is also key.

“Kids know what the expectations are,” said Levesque. “One of the first things we do at the beginning of the year is tell students how to walk up the stairs quietly and without being disruptive. So it’s about good behavior as well as good grades.”

Consistent expectations

Voter said he reviews standardized test questions with his students every year and reviews material from past years after summer vacation. However, he also holds students accountable for material they have learned on a daily basis with a short quiz at the end of class.

Levesque said she, too, collects work from students every day. Sometimes it is a quiz and sometimes it will be a graded exercise.

“There is always something I look at, just to check how they are doing,” she said.

Pease said students at Phillips are excited to learn. The school also has awards assemblies to encourage students and celebrate their achievements, Pease said.

“They set goals and we help them meet those goals. I think they want to do well,” she said.

The school also offers a consistent environment to students, said Pease.

According to the Department of Education, 73 percent of Phillips students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, while the state average is 46 percent. At Stratton, 45 percent of students qualify; and at Strong, 62 percent.

“School is the most consistent thing for many of our students. They come here and they know who their teachers will be. They know they will have breakfast, snacks and lunch,” Pease said.

Defying expectations

To outsiders it may seem strange that a rural school in a poor community can do so well on a state evaluation, Thomas said.

“I know the staff, teachers and administrators, so to me it isn’t strange. They have a great level of care and concern,” Thomas said. “It’s hard for me to remove myself and see it any other way.”

Before the new letter-grading system was in place, Phillips consistently met the standards of the No Child Left Behind Act, which evaluated schools based on federal standards met through testing at grades 4, 8, and 11.

According to the Department of Education, the school is listed as having achieved federal standards every year since 2003, with the exception of one year in which they did not meet all reading targets.

Maine is one of 45 states that requested waivers from the federal No Child Left Behind Act requirements, which was criticized for its reliance on testing and pressure on all schools, including those with already-high achievement rates, to improve their scores each year.

The new letter-grade system also has been faulted for its emphasis on standardized test scores. Critics include Democratic state legislators who last week announced plans for their own grading system.

Pease said she is happy with the A grades for her schools, but she doesn’t see the grading system as the only measure of how capable a school is.

“Schools are like children. On any given day, there are some that have successes and some that have failures,” she said.

In Phillips, which had a population of slightly more than 1,000 people as of 2010, Pease said the school is the center of the small community and many people are invested in its success.

“The schools are used,” she said, adding that it is not unusual to have community sports games on weekends or Boy Scout troop meetings. Volunteers read in classrooms.

“Everybody chips in. Parents, students and teachers want the students to do well, and the teachers make that happen,” she said.

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368
rohm@mainetoday.com