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

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.

Colbry said one challenge to having the academic coaches has been trying to find the time for continuing education, especially when teacher’s union contracts stipulate the number of hours that can be worked.

“There’s a mind shift there. It’s not a one-time thing. It’s ongoing, and I think that’s been difficult for staff,” he said.

One thing the district has done is eliminate staff meetings, in favor of using the time for professional development, he said. Lunch schedules, upcoming events and other information are delivered through email or blogging, Swindells said.

“I think in a lot of low-income districts, it is easy to just ask for more money when really the focus should be on where the money is going,” he said.

Colbry said the district can choose to spend Title I money on a number of things including equipment or staff development. Building a staff of academic coaches has taken time, but it is money well spent, he said.

“They provide support for the teachers we have to become better teachers,” he said.

Louder’s reading workshop class is one example of a technique that was introduced by the academic coaches. Goodwin said the model has been so successful that teachers in Canaan have adapted it for other subject areas such as mathematics.

Bowen said the approach is similar to the idea of mass customized learning, which does not rely on traditional letter grades but requires students to meet proficiency-based standards before they can move on.

“Students are working on different things. It’s not too easy for some and too hard for others,” he said.

Technology is also integral to the workshop, including an iPad computer for the small group to use and a scholastic program called Read 180, which lets students practice vocabulary, comprehension, spelling and fluency on the computer.

In addition to the academic coaches and workshops in classrooms, Swindells said the sense of community in the kindergarten-through-grade-6 school is key to its success.

“Our teachers and staff take time to build relationships with students,” he said.

Bowen said that as he wraps up his tour of the state, he plans to take the information back to the department to analyze over the summer.

“We will think about how we can respond and make these things available to other schools,” he said.

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368
rohm@mainetoday.com