AUGUSTA — Making a lap of Farrington Elementary School last week, Principal Lori Smail exchanged waves with kindergarteners choosing picture books in the library, ducked into a second grade classroom to talk with two boys about their reading and exhorted a class passing her in the hallway to “Work hard, guys!”

When students arrive in the morning and leave in the afternoon, Smail escorts them where they need to go and tries to greet as many as possible by name.

“Some principals come into school and go in their office, and they’re swamped with paperwork and swamped with everything that they have to get done,” fourth grade teacher Jessica Walling said. “Lori saves all that stuff for after school hours so she can be in the hallways and in the classrooms. She walks into every classroom I’d say two or three times a week.”

Smail’s hands-on leadership and accessibility were among the reasons the Maine Principals Association named her the state’s elementary principal of the year.

“I was honored, I was thrilled, and I had no idea I would even be in contention,” Smail said. “I see so many outstanding administrators in my field.”

She received recognition for the award at Farrington and at a statewide banquet in the spring. This week, she and other top principals from around the country will be celebrated in Washington, D.C.

A Maine Principals Association committee interviewed parents and staff about Smail and reviewed recommendation letters. In naming her principal of the year, they cited her enthusiasm, her efforts to welcome community involvement and a visibility in the school that helped her bring about a school culture of pride and respect.

Smail has led Farrington for two years, after working the previous two years as principal of Augusta’s Lincoln Elementary. Prior to a period of working in schools in Sabattus and Wales, Smail taught special education at Lincoln.

Tamara Blair Kirk, the treasurer for Farrington’s Parent-Teacher Committee, said she was excited when Smail came to Farrington, her family’s neighborhood school. Blair Kirk’s daughters, twins who are now in fourth grade, had attended prekindergarten at Lincoln, and they were impressed that Smail could tell them apart and remember their names from three years earlier.

Farrington’s staff averages nearly 20 years of experience, but Blair Kirk said there’s a new energy at the school, and the climate of the place has changed.

“When we tried to volunteer with our son several years ago, we were told thanks but no thanks,” Blair Kirk said. “It seemed very closed, and now the school just feels a lot more open. They want parents to be there, and a lot of the focus is how they can better communicate with parents.”

Blair Kirk attributed that openness to the leadership of Smail, who organized an open house before school began, instead of a week or two into the school year as had been traditional.

At that first open house two years ago, Smail said that school staff had work to do — Farrington was not meeting targets set by federal education law — and parents needed to do their part, as well. Blair Kirk said she found that refreshing.

“Changing culture’s a really difficult thing to do, and she just isn’t afraid to get in there, roll up her sleeves and make clear what the expectations are,” Blair Kirk said, “and then help everyone to meet those expectations.”

Smail said her goal when she arrived at Farrington was to create a united school community with a clear concept of what it means to be at Farrington. The core idea is respect. Signs hanging around the building advise: “Respect yourself. Respect others. Respect your school.”

When Smail sets standards, the target is often 100 percent. For instance, a class can earn an extra recess for good behavior, but only if every student follows all rules for a whole month.

Smail said most staff welcomed the changes she made, but some were skeptical about the level of performance she expected.

“A staff member said, ‘You can’t keep this up,’” she said. “Yeah, we’re going to because we’re passionate about kids and passionate about our school.”

Farrington started tracking data about student behavior, and compliance with the school rules has risen from 78 percent to 92 percent in two years, Smail said.

The school is showing improvements in academic performance as well, along with the other Augusta elementary schools.

Farrington’s performance on standardized tests remains below state averages, but the school is closing the gap. The percentage of students scoring “proficient” or higher on the New England Common Assessment Program tests rose from 56.3 percent in 2010 to 60.5 percent last year.

Walling said Smail’s background in special education makes her a strong advocate for the students in the districtwide behavior and life-skills programs housed at Farrington, as well as helping her understand how to craft academic plans for individual students.

Before students in third through sixth grades began a round of standardized tests this month, Smail met with each of them to talk about their past performance and set goals.

Blair Kirk said instead of dreading going to the principal’s office, her daughters see Smail as someone they can approach if they have a problem.

“Because she has regular contact with the kids, she can talk with them in a way that’s sort of casual and take care of the issue before it escalates,” Blair Kirk said. “For a kid to know that the principal knows who they are, it makes them feel special.”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
[email protected]