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Tenacious pursuit of grants pushes Woodmere higher

Why don't more Portland schools excel like Woodmere?

First, many of them don't pursue and win the extra grant money that Woodmere uses to supplement its budget.

Education experts who've watched Woodmere Principal Vonnie Condon say she is tireless in pursuing public and private grants. The money helps Woodmere add teachers and teachers' assistants and helps them get professional training beyond their peers at other schools.

This year, through a private grant and a federal grant, Woodmere will spend an extra $100,000 or so on a half-time literacy specialist and intensive literacy training for staff. That doesn't include the extra money for the county's Touchstone social services program or the city and county money used to include Woodmere in the Schools Uniting Neighborhoods program.

Schools that don't pursue and win such grants Ñ and that rely only on the professional development and school improvement funds provided by the Portland district Ñ are more limited in what they can do for students.

'Without the extra grants, it would be a very different school,' third-grade teacher Jodi Lepley says.

But Cynthia Guyer, executive director of the Portland Schools Foundation, says average Portland schools remain average for reasons beyond money. District and school leaders generally do a poor job of recognizing schools that excel, understanding why they excel and emulating them across the district, Guyer says.

The controversy in Portland about the achievement gap between students from low-income and more well-off families 'has broken down the public's understanding of what is really important,' Guyer says. 'This stuff is known.

'One thing we're trying to get the district to look at is, when something is working, how come we're not taking it to scale?' she says.

Woodmere excels in large part because teachers work together on a common curriculum, get extensive in-school training on teaching the curriculum and assess students often on what they're learning, Guyer and others say.

Pat Burk, Portland schools deputy superintendent, says the district does better than it once did at helping schools emulate success. But district leaders don't want to impose solutions on individual schools, he says.

Guyer hopes a $450,000 grant recently won by the schools foundation and the Portland district might help more schools succeed. The three-year grant from the Annenberg Foundation will allow school, district and community leaders to study the indicators that reflect a good school, then learn how to make districtwide changes to improve struggling schools.

Ñ Todd Murphy