AUGUSTA — Amid a clear trend of schools in wealthy communities receiving generally higher grades from the state this week, Hussey Elementary was a rare exception.

Out of 82 A’s, only eight went to schools where more than half of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, a common proxy for the poverty rate at a school. Hussey, with a 58.4 percent free or reduced lunch rate, earned one of those eight A’s.

In fact, Hussey students performed so well and showed so much progress on the New England Common Assessment Program standardized test in October that Hussey was the fourth highest-scoring elementary school in Maine.

By the state’s measure, Hussey Elementary is thriving in the face of challenges, but don’t expect to hear Augusta schools officials crowing about the top grade.

Interim Superintendent Jim Anastasio and Hussey Principal Michelle Michaud refused interviews about the secrets of Hussey’s success.

In an email, Anastasio explained that he did not want to single out Hussey among the district’s schools based on the simplistic and unfair comparison embedded in the state’s report cards for schools.

Augusta’s elementary schools share curriculum, the principals collaborate continuously, and most initiatives are district-wide, Anastasio wrote.

Farrington, Gilbert and Lincoln elementary schools all received C’s. Cony High School also received a C, while Cony Junior High School got a D.

Parents interviewed about Hussey’s strengths cited the family feeling of the small school, dedicated teachers who challenge students, involved parents and the leadership provided by Michaud.

Connie Brown, superintendent of Augusta schools from 1999 to 2012 and mother of a current Hussey student, said Michaud has been the biggest catalyst for student achievement and growth.

“If you look at the research regarding what makes the real difference in student achievement, when you boil it right down, it’s the building principal,” Brown said. “I can’t think of a better example of that than Michelle Michaud’s leadership at Hussey Elementary School.”

Brown, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said she has worked with a lot of talented principals, but none has been as focused as Michaud on analyzing data to identify students who need more assistance or introducing best practices for instruction. She made data analysis part of the school culture, in part because she’s had the opportunity to hire several new teachers since becoming principal in 2005.

There’s also a positive environment among the students themselves, Brown said.

“The kids that go to Hussey have really bought into this idea that they are a community of learners and that they are kind to each other, and that part of their job as school citizens is to make sure it’s a great place to grow and learn,” she said.

Hussey will lose Michaud at the end of the year, when for unrelated reasons she plans to resign as principal and return to working as a guidance counselor. She was a guidance counselor at the former Buker Middle School from 1993 to 2000, and then at Hussey until becoming principal.

The Augusta school board will vote on accepting Michaud’s resignation this week.

It’s impossible to compare the test scores that went into determining Hussey’s A to the ones from before Michaud’s tenure because the test has changed.

In 2004-05 and 2005-06, Hussey students taking the Maine Educational Assessment performed below state averages in most subjects at most grade levels, and Hussey’s scores were in line with those at the other Augusta elementary schools.

In the four years since Maine began using the New England Common Assessment Program tests, however, Hussey students have consistently met standards at a higher rate than their peers, both in Augusta and statewide.

In addition to having high proficiency rates, Hussey also scored high on the state report card’s growth measures, which track the number of students who advance by a proficiency level from year to year.

The statewide relationship between poverty and low school grades may be acting itself out on a smaller scale in Augusta.

Hussey’s rate of free and reduced rate eligibility is 58.4 percent, well above the statewide rate of 46.1 percent. But in Augusta, Gilbert Elementary is at 65.5 percent, Lincoln Elementary at 69.6 percent and Farrington Elementary at 70.8 percent.

Dresden Elementary

In addition to Hussey, another local school that scored high despite the number of children receiving free or reduced price lunches was Dresden Elementary, with a rate of 56.5 and an A grade.

Compared to other Augusta schools, Hussey also has fewer students with disabilities, who also tend to score lower on standardized tests. In 2011-12, 13.2 percent of Hussey students had disabilities, compared to 18.1 percent for Augusta schools overall. The district’s programs for students with autism, behavioral or functional skill needs are at other elementary schools because of the space limitations at Hussey.

Hussey had 232 students in October, making it Augusta’s smallest elementary school by nearly 60 students. Several parents said Hussey’s small size is an advantage.

Shannan Collins said she likes the close-knit feeling of the school, but out-of-school factors are also involved in Hussey’s success.

“I’m not going to put it on socioeconomic class, but I do believe that it starts with parents,” said Collins, the mother of a fourth-grade girl. “At home, we know what’s expected of our kids in school. I know I push my kids to do what they’re supposed to do.”

Trisha Huard, whose daughter is in first grade, said the teachers not only get a lot of one-on-one time with their own students but also interact with and support students in other classes. Students also interact across grade levels through a reading buddies program.

“The teachers really care about their students, they get involved, they get their parents involved,” Huard said. “They empower the kids to do their best, and I think that makes the difference.”

Dan Letendre has three children at Hussey: a kindergartener, a third grader and a sixth grader. He said his children bring home rigorous homework, and his eldest has made “huge gains” in her first year at the school.

“The teachers are all really good,” Letendre said. “If you have any issues, they’re there to answer them for you. From Mrs. Michaud, the principal, all the way down, everybody’s really good about making sure the kids are getting what they need education-wise, and even above that as well.”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
[email protected]

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