BANGOR, Maine — The number of Maine schools lagging behind federal school improvement requirements will increase drastically this year and might double in poorer areas, according to education officials who said they have never seen such an increase.

Though Maine is not alone in its struggle to keep up with the No Child Left Behind Act, diminishing funding to address the issue will only exacerbate the problem, according to the Maine Department of Education.

The jump in schools that aren’t keeping up with the act — which under the Obama administration is now called the Elementary Secondary Education Act — doesn’t mean that Maine schools are becoming worse, but rather that they aren’t improving as quickly as they need to, said Rachelle Tome, who directs the program in Maine.

“We actually lost half our federal money we had for school improvement,” said Tome. “It’s going to stretch the program very thin.”

Schools that fail to meet the federal requirements for two or more consecutive years fall into a status called Continuous Improvement Priority Schools, or CIPS. That means they are required to work with the Department of Education to improve the situation by redesigning curriculum and training staff.

Tome said the number of Title 1 schools — which receive federal funding because of their size or because more than 35 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches — in CIPS status could more than double this year. There are now 50 schools on that list in Maine, and though Tome said the data are “very preliminary” at this point, that number could go as high as 120 for the 2011-12 school year. Better data on non-Title 1 schools will be available later this summer.

“There was an incredible jump,” she said, referring to preliminary data she studied this spring. “The schools are not really getting a chance to catch their breath one year to the next.”

By 2014, the No Child Left Behind Act requires the nation’s schools  to bring all students to proficiency in reading and math, increase attendance in grades three through eight to 96 percent, and graduate 90 percent of high school students. As the years go by, the targets become more difficult to attain.

In the 2011-12 school year, 83 percent of students in grades three through eight and 86 percent of high school students must meet the federal requirements in reading. In math, the targets are 80 percent for grades three through eight and 77 percent in high school.

According to Tome, a majority of CIPS schools in Maine are having trouble meeting the math requirements, though attendance is becoming a factor for some.

“The lens is now getting focused on math,” she said. “The state has spent a lot of time across districts in raising literacy instruction and achievement. I can’t say the same level of attention was given to mathematics because the targets for math were much lower. That’s starting to catch up with us now.”

George Tucker is a member of the Department of Education’s Title 1 School Improvement Team, which is made up of a dozen education experts who help schools develop plans to remove themselves from CIPS status. He said Maine is not alone in its struggles to meet No Child Left Behind requirements, but that its rural nature makes the task more difficult.

“Small schools were able to make adequate yearly progress in the early years, but it’s getting more difficult,” he said. “We have quite a few small schools.”

Consultants hired by the state work with schools for as long as the schools are on the CIPS list. If the schools can’t catch up with the requirements, they face consequences, according to Tome. In the first year, they are required to dedicate 10 percent of their professional development budget to the CIPS plan. A school in the second year of CIPS status is required to tutor every student who lags behind and devote 20 percent of its professional development budget.

Tome said for many schools, those set-aside dollars come out of federal Title 1 money that otherwise probably would be used to hire staff.

“It can be a very cumbersome set-aside for most districts,” she said. “It means there’s less money to distribute to the schools.”

At the state level, Tome said some of the money that in the past would have been spent working with CIPS schools is now being spent on School Improvement Grants, a 2-year-old program in which the Maine Department of Education chooses 10 underperforming schools every year to receive a three-year stream of additional federal funding. Less funding means the CIPS consultants will deal with more schools, said Tome.

Despite the reasons for being on the CIPS list, Tome said most schools see the process in a positive light.

Michael Gallagher, who is the superintendent in SAD 53, which serves Pittsfield, Burnham and Detroit, agreed. Last year, Warsaw Middle School was a CIPS school in math and Vickery Elementary was on the list for both reading and math. Warsaw is off the list and Vickery has made “safe harbor” status in math, which means there was a 10 percent improvement in the number of students meeting No Child Left Behind requirements. In reading, Vickery will enter CIPS III status, though Gallagher said strides are being made.

“It’s nice to get schools off that status,” said Gallagher. “[The program] helped us improve our instruction and focus. It’s a good experience.”

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.