PORTLAND, Maine — A senior adviser to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he plans to bring lessons from his tour of Portland schools back with him to the nation’s capital, where federal officials are seeking to learn how best to help struggling schools.

Jo Anderson of the U.S. Department of Education visited Riverton and East End community schools, among other facilities, during his daylong visit to Maine’s largest city. The two schools are significant in that they used federal grant money to help bounce back after multiple years of failing to reach national testing benchmarks.

Using federal school improvement grant money that becomes available to schools that fail over three years to make “adequate yearly progress” on standardized tests — as defined in the federal No Child Left Behind Act — the Riverton and East End schools have assembled teams of teaching coaches and subject matter specialists to cycle through classrooms. The coaches and specialists work with both teachers and students to model the latest educational strategies, Kathleen Casasa, president of the teachers union, the Portland Education Association, told reporters Tuesday at Riverton.

“In the traditional structure, a teacher goes into a classroom full of kids, shuts the door and she’s doing it all by herself,” Casasa said. “We’re bringing more people into those classrooms. We’ve had to kind of open those closed classroom doors. As parents come in, they see something very different from the classrooms they had when they were kids. A lot more people are coming in and out of these classrooms, but they’re doing it seamlessly.”

First-year Riverton Principal Jeanne Malia, hired away from a Los Angeles magnet school to help lead a largely overhauled faculty and help turn around student performance at the Forest Avenue school, said annual standardized test scores in the building shot up after the classroom doors were opened.

She said the New England Common Assessment Program scores from the October 2011 round, preliminarily issued to school officials Friday, showed significant progress from the scores of a year earlier. Malia said she couldn’t release the figures until state Department of Education leaders stamp them as official, which is expected to take place this week, but the difference was remarkable enough to capture the attention of Anderson.

“They’ve made huge gains in just the first year [in the federal school improvement grant program], and that’s not what you expect to see,” Anderson told reporters Tuesday. “This is a school that has huge challenges, but it’s making a lot of progress. … [Arne Duncan] counts on us to be out and about and to see what we can learn. To see how [the federal government] can help and how we can get out of the way.”

David Galin, the district’s chief academic officer, told Anderson during a morning meeting at Riverton that the schools also have launched outreach efforts within their surrounding neighborhoods to build more active support among parents and community members.

“We had to work against the established culture to gain additional flexibility,” Galin said, adding, “We’ve got students who come here from other countries, who know no English, whose parents know no English, and after a year, they’re put in front of a standardized test. … It really does take a communitywide effort to embrace a demographic change like that.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.