National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Focusing on Mathematics Adds Up to Higher Achievement – Turner Elementary School, Turner, Maine

Turner Elementary fifth graders identify macro-invertebrate taken from a Maine river based on its characteristics. Photo credit: Jane Campbell.

Turner Elementary fifth graders identify macro-invertebrate taken from a Maine river based on its characteristics. Photo credit: Jane Campbell.

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

Turner Elementary School, a grade 4–6 school, is located in a small farming community 50 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Forty-two percent of the 200 students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches and about 18 percent have disabilities.

Four years ago, Turner and other schools throughout the district were struggling to improve student performance, especially in mathematics. At Turner, 64 percent of fifth-graders scored proficient or above in mathematics on the State test in school year 2010–2011. Three years later, the number has sharply increased, to 84 percent.

The school used Title II and Title VI funds to provide professional development opportunities during the school year and the summer.

Q. How did your school achieve such a turnaround in only three years?

Cynthia Alexander, principal: We created a team of staff across the grade levels. Known as the Advanced Tier Team, the group meets every five weeks to look at data and develop an individual learning plan for every student who needs extra support, not just special-education students. We determine if students need interventions in math or other subjects and what those interventions should be. Then, at the next meeting, the responsible person brings updated data so the team can see if the intervention is working and whether adjustments are necessary. But we don’t just look at academic data; we also look at behavioral data and trends so we are focusing on the whole child.

We also have professional learning community meetings once a week, during which teachers meet by grade level to review data and plan instruction for individual students.

If students need interventions, we want to make sure they get that support without missing regular class time. So we have Intervention Time 3 days a week for 40 minutes. During that time, students work on a specific skill, like fractions, so they can fill in knowledge gaps.

We also have an interventionist—a certified teacher who provides support both in and out of the classroom. And we have mini-groups that meet daily. For example, if students are having trouble with fluency, they will meet in the mini-group for eight minutes at the beginning of the literacy block. Teachers tell us that is really helping.

Q. Why focus on mathematics?

Becky Foley, assistant superintendent: Four years ago when I came to the district, I talked with the administrators,

Maine Senator Susan Collins joins the superintendent, assistant superintendent, board chair, and Turner Elementary principal Cynthia Alexander for a photo with the National Blue Ribbon Schools award. Photo Credit: Turner Elementary School.

Maine Senator Susan Collins joins the superintendent, assistant superintendent, board chair, and Turner Elementary principal Cynthia Alexander for a photo with the National Blue Ribbon Schools award. Photo Credit: Turner Elementary School.

and they really wanted to focus on math. Across the district, we were not doing well in math on any level.

Alexander: The first year, the district math committee came to the school and observed three different math lessons on the same day. At the end of the day, the committee gathered to discuss what they had seen.

Foley: This experience was very effective because all the observations happened on the same day and the discussion was immediate. We held similar observations for the first two years we were phasing in a new math curriculum and will probably do it again in a year or two.

Alexander: We looked in particular at implementation for math. If we don’t have implementation practices in place, we get gaps in the curriculum, and students don’t have access to the same instruction. That means over a period of years, we are creating gaps among students.

We need to teach all of the units in a curriculum. We aren’t giving teachers a script, but we are making sure they have a guide to stay on track and cover the same skills, without missing some units because they run out of time. We have built extra days into the plan for use if a teacher needs extra time to cover some material. But if a teacher is two weeks behind, we need to look at what we need to do to support that teacher.

We also look at how we can educate parents. The way we teach math now is different from the way we learned it when we were in school. So we need to help parents understand it. At our fall Open House/Curriculum Night, teachers meet with parents by grade level. They show parents the math curriculum so parents can help their students. In the spring we have Math Night. Teachers set up displays at cafeteria tables, and parents come play math games at each booth. They get a ticket for each game they play, and at the end of the night we hold drawings for prizes.

Foley: We use a very systemic approach—we need everybody working together to help students improve achievement.

You can learn more about Turner Elementary School’s efforts and success here.

National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: All Means All – Imogene Giesinger Elementary School, Conroe, Texas

Four students are working together at a table, two seated and two standing. They are actively discussing a book they are reading and diagramming out the story on a piece of poster paper.

Giesinger students analyze the meaning of a book they are reading as a group. Photo Credit: Giesinger Elementary School.

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

Imogene Giesinger Elementary School is a preK–4 grade, Title I school located in a fast growing suburb outside of Houston. The school’s increasingly diverse 617 students come from both households that are economically disadvantaged and affluent; they live in homes, apartments and rural areas; two-thirds of the students are white, 19 percent are Hispanic and 9 percent are African American. To meet all of their students’ needs, Giesinger’s teachers compile data on every student from common formative assessments and meet together in Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) to devise and evaluate strategies. Administrators meet with all third- and fourth-grade students to review the students’ results, celebrate progress and set goals.

The school has accomplished the rare feat of eliminating the achievement gap among different groups of students. For example, 96 percent of all fourth grade students were proficient or advanced in mathematics; 97 percent of the students eligible for free or reduced price lunches were proficient or advanced and 89 percent of the Hispanic students were proficient or advanced. In English language arts, 88 percent of all students, 88 percent of students eligible for free and reduced price lunches, and 89 percent of Hispanic students were proficient or advanced.

Q. What is the secret to closing the achievement gap?

Rebecca Page, principal*: We give common, formative assessments in each grade and use district benchmark tests to identify students who are not where they need to be and then fill in the gaps. The teachers know who didn’t get it, and then they go back and organize their students into small groups for guided reading or guided mathematics. Those groups are fluid in the classroom and across grade levels. Teachers are constantly going over the data looking for how they can intervene with students and identify the help they need. They come up with an instructional plan, and I and the assistant principal support the plan and make it happen.

Connie Payne, Title I teacher: We have a philosophy of getting together by grade level and sharing among our teachers. There is always someone at every grade level who kind of lifts you up when you’re down and gives you new ideas of how to approach a student or a learning objective; then you’re back on track.This graphic has a quote from Rebecca Page, the principal of Giesinger Elementary School: “Teachers are constantly going over the data looking for how they can intervene with students and identify the help they need. They come up with an instructional plan, and I and the assistant principal support the plan and make it happen.”

Page: We have high expectations for all of our students. All means all. I or the assistant principal get together with each third and fourth grader to review their results, celebrate progress and set new goals. And they graph their progress.

Payne: If you have high expectations for your students then you have to be current in your teaching because our kids are always changing. Ms. Page is supportive of us being current in our teaching practices.

Q. What support is provided for teachers?

Payne: The district provides excellent professional development and has instructional coaches who provide teachers with a lot of support as they go from training to implementation of best practices. Our teachers realize that improvement is a refinement process. You’re not going to try something once or twice and see an impact on students. Change is difficult. It takes time, and Ms. Page has always been great with that.

Page: Our scores on our common formative assessments and district benchmarks are very public. All the teachers in a grade level say these scores are all of ours. They get together and talk about areas of strengths and weaknesses. It is sharing and open communication about what we need to do to address our students’ needs. It’s what are we going to do together for our kids. Our teachers are very committed.

You can learn more about Imogene Giesinger Elementary School’s success here.

*Rebecca Page retired as principal after school year 2014–2015.

National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Educating the Whole Child – Haines Elementary School, Haines, Alaska

Barbara Pardee (left), Title I reading specialist, and René Martin (right), dean of students, Haines Elementary School. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education.

Barbara Pardee (left), Title I reading specialist, and René Martin (right), dean of students, Haines Elementary School. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education.

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

Haines Elementary School is located in rural Haines, Alaska. The K-8 elementary school has 200 students and shares a building with the high school. About 15 percent of the students are Alaska Natives and 15 percent are students with disabilities. About half qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Haines cares deeply about every student’s success.  The school uses a variety of assessments to closely monitor every student’s progress and teachers meet three times per year to analyze the data and plan interventions. Students who need extra help in reading come to school 30 minutes early for individual or small-group tutoring or to use a computer reading program that has produced strong results. Some kindergartners stay 45 minutes after school to work on their mathematics or early literacy skills. Students identified as needing special education services get the help they need from paraprofessionals and special education teachers within the regular classroom.

Haines also uses several strategies to increase student engagement in school. Teachers use technology across the curriculum and the school provides students with enrichment opportunities as well as individualized interventions.

These efforts have lead to important gains for Haines students.  The percentage of students with disabilities who are proficient or advanced in reading increased 14.3 percentage points between 2011 and 2013; writing scores for this group increased 9 percentage points during that period. Mathematics scores increased by 20 percentage points. During that time, the achievement gap between students with disabilities and those without shrank rapidly.

Over 90 percent of the school’s students are proficient or advanced in reading and writing and 85 percent proficient or advanced in mathematics.

Q. How do you promote high performance among students and close achievement gaps?

René Martin, dean of students: We focus on whole child education, which involves Response to Intervention strategies, engaging parents and making all staff aware of students’ needs. Response to Intervention means that teachers try to meet each student’s needs, intervening early on when they begin to fall behind to get them back on track. The intensity of the assistance students receive is increased as needed, but some students who still need more help may then be identified as needing special education services. Everybody understands everyone’s role. We have stopped pointing fingers, and instead focus on what we can do. We also do a lot of professional development because teachers have to be aware of what is new in theory and practice—the world is different, and children are different.

Barbara Pardee, Title I reading specialist*: We have a lot of special education needs. So we looked across the students’ Individualized Education Programs to see what they had in common. We saw that short-term memory issues were a common thread and students needed help with auditory processing. So we brought in a computer-based program that helps students improve their memory and attentioThis graphic has a quote from René Martin, dean of students at Haines Elementary School: “Everyone understands everyone’s role. We have stopped pointing fingers, and instead focus on what we can do.”n skills and increases the speed at which students process information. It was not easy to implement, and we needed a lot of training. But we got the whole team on board with the priorities and said, “As a school, we are working on this.”

And it’s working. A student told me that he now could hear words when before it sounded to him like mumbling. We actually saw improved performance in math first. Now we use it for all second graders regardless of ability level, including gifted and talented students.

Martin: We formed child study teams and believe that the majority of interventions need to be done for the majority of students. We have managed to decrease our special education population from 20 percent to 14 percent because we provide support for all of our students and don’t push them aside.

Martin: With our early intervention strategies, we are working to make sure that no students fall through the cracks and that every student can move forward and have hope for the future. Because we are small and rural, students don’t even know what is possible. So another thing we are doing is sending students to Juneau to learn about careers.

You can learn much more about Haines Elementary School’s efforts and success here.

*Barbara Pardee retired after school year 2014–2015.

National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Working as a Team – Prairie Elementary School, Cottonwood, Idaho

A class of students from Prairie Elementary stand in front of hteir yellow school bus before departing for a school field trip.

Prairie Elementary School sixth graders depart for a school field trip.
Photo Credit: Cottonwood School District.

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from their successes.

Prairie Elementary School in Cottonwood has 196 students, kindergarten through grade six, many of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch based on their family’s income. These students have become more mobile than in the past, as families move more often.  Prairie is one of only two schools in the Cottonwood district; the other is a combined middle-high school. It was the only school in Idaho to be awarded Blue Ribbon status in 2014.

Prairie Elementary joined a five-district consortium to give the school’s 14 teachers (some of whom also work at the high school) more peers to work with and access to additional resources. Lead teachers from the schools in the consortium come together three times annually to plan and prepare lessons and materials aligned with the Idaho Core Standards to share with their colleagues. For example, the third through sixth grade teachers in the consortium are all using online Khan Academy videos as part of a statewide pilot program. The school’s recent gains have been so significant that the State invited Prairie teachers to give a presentation in the State capital on what they are doing that is making a difference.

Q. How do you engage families and the community?

René Forsmann, principal: Everybody is always welcome, and we are fortunate to have a lot of backing from parents and the community.

The picture shows Rene Forsmann, the principal of Prairie Elementary School, on the left, and Sherry Holthaus, one of the school's teachers, on the right.

Caption: Prairie Elementary School principal René Forsmann, left, and Sherry Holthaus, one of the school’s teachers, right. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education

To improve student achievement, we have to take it on as a team. We are all in this together. Each student means something to the community, parents and staff, and our parents have high regard for teachers. We provide lots of opportunities for parents to participate in our classrooms, on our field trips and through coaching and mentoring. Our drug-free group, Kindness Rocks, provides activities for students and parents, bringing families together to work on art projects, fly tying, bracelet making, bingo night, etcetera. With each activity, there is always a message regarding kindness and anti-bullying.

We have open houses that are attended by 90 percent of parents. During the fall open house, they are given information about the Title I program, after-school program, after-school activities and school expectations throughout the year.

Fall parent-teacher conference attendance ranges from 85 to 95 percent. School concerts are attended by approximately 250 parents, friends, grandparents and community members.

We want kids to be in schools so, when students are absent, a call is made to parents to find out details. We also do home visits when students are absent from school for three to five consecutive days.

Our community stands behind our school, passing a property tax levy every year since 2005.

Q. How do you use data to improve student achievement?

Forsmann: Our work is data-driven. We look at data for individual kids and group students by ability. The important thing is to use the data—to not do data to do data.

We look at the data for each student and break students into different categories at different times of the day. Every student has enrichment time at least once per week, and we use the data to inform what happens during this time. We also use the data to help teachers teach to their strengths and provide after-school support. And we have students involved in accountability as well and provide rewards when they do well. We give awards for attendance, because students have to come to school to learn and succeed.

We have been fortunate to receive grants for technology, so all of our classrooms have iPads, Chromebooks and laptops. We load them with programs that students can use for extra support or advanced coursework. So with the data about students’ abilities, their teachers are able to use the technology to teach students at their current level. We can be there for all students. With many things going on in class at once, teachers have to be guides or facilitators.

You can learn much more about Prairie Elementary School’s efforts and success here.

National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: We Help Each Other – Jefferson Science Magnet School, Norwalk, Connecticut

Jefferson Science Magnet School students on a field trip to a nearby river to learn more about habitats, water and soil. Photo Credit: Jefferson Science Magnet School.

Jefferson Science Magnet School students on a field trip to a nearby river to learn more about habitats, water and soil. Photo Credit: Jefferson Science Magnet School.

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

Jefferson Science Magnet School is a K–5 grade elementary school located in Norwalk, Connecticut, a suburb of New York City. About 70 percent of its students are Hispanic or African American, and about 68 percent of them are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch. Jefferson students take part in hands-on science activities at places such as the Norwalk Maritime Museum or a local children’s science museum, and they take advantage of the school’s proximity to the Long Island Sound. The school has won a number of statewide awards for its success in narrowing the achievement gaps.

Jefferson’s overall School Performance Index (SPI) was 81.8 for the 2013–2014 school year, exceeding its State target of 79.5 and with a less than 10 SPI points gap for African American and Hispanic students.  The State considers Jefferson to be a “Progressing” school, a rating only awarded to 235 out of 820 elementary and middle schools across the State.

Q. What did you do to shrink the achievement gaps at your school?

John Reynolds, principal: We made two primary changes. First, we transitioned to the science-based program that really provides kids with deep experiential learning, predominantly with resources within the local community. We don’t just teach content, we create problem solvers through inquiry. What students experience on their field trips each year is related to the following year. There is an intentional sequence of experiences and content that is learned.

Another powerful practice is what we call “Double Dose.” For one hour each day, all students are in groups for customized literacy learning. The groups are based on the results of formative assessments created by teachers.

Instructional teams meet weekly to analyze data at all levels (school, classroom, grade level, subgroup and individual student level) to identify strengths and weaknesses, capitalizing on what students can do well and pushing them to do better. The Double Dose sessions provide remediation for those who need it and enrichment for others. If you’re a successful learner you go with other successful learners. If 10 students need basic skills, they’ll get that. It allows for focused instruction, and the groups are re-formed every six weeks based on students’ progress. Students get help before needing to be referred for special education. (To hear more from John Reynolds about the Double Dose model, watch this video.)

Q. How can you afford to take these trips and hire enough people to run these groups?

Reynolds: Title I provides the opportunity for our children to do these things. We can hire additional staff that makes the Double Dose sessions possible and provide the people we bring in with professional development and materials. We try to have a 10 to 1 student to teacher ratio for that hour.

Q. Your school motto is “We help each other.” What does that mean?

Reynolds: We have a very loving, caring community of teachers. We help each other. We need to look within to what is working, not what’s broken. That applies to teachers and students—teachers helping teachers; students helping students; and the school working with families and the community. We have more than 600 students but it feels like a small place. Students feel loved. As many challenges as our kids have, they come and know they are loved in school and can take risks and get help solving their problems. The science they learn is a byproduct.

You can learn more about Jefferson Science Magnet School’s approach here.

National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Collaborating Toward Success – Fennimore Elementary School, Fennimore, Wisconsin

A class of students is grouped together, perched on top of a scenic overlook of a state park with a reiver running through the background. A naturalist stands on top of a rock near the students and points to an object in the distance.

Fennimore Elementary School students on a field trip to a nearby river. Credit: Fennimore Elementary School.

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

Fennimore Elementary, a preK–6 school with 440 students, is located in a rural region in the western part of Wisconsin. Half of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. When Wisconsin increased the passing scores on its statewide assessments in reading and mathematics for school year (SY) 2011–2012, there was as much as a 20 percentage point gap in achievement between Fennimore’s economically disadvantaged students and those who were not disadvantaged. The school adopted what it calls SMART (Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Results-oriented and Timely) goals, focused its grade-level Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) on reaching them and began closely monitoring students’ progress and intervening as soon as they began falling behind.

In 2013, 45 percent of the school’s students were proficient or advanced in reading, up from 34 percent in 2008. In mathematics, 56 percent of its students were proficient or advanced, compared to 41 percent five years earlier. Only one in four students with disabilities was proficient or advanced in SY 2008–2009 as compared to almost one in two in SY 2012–2013. Over that same period, the percentage of economically disadvantaged students who were proficient or advanced in mathematics math rose from 29 percent to 51 percent.  Gains were similar in reading.

The school receives Title I funding, which allows it to hire two additional full-time teachers and one part-time teacher. The Title I teachers are highly qualified and intervene with students needing extra help. The school also receives Title II money that it uses to purchase technology and a Title VI Rural Education grant it used for professional development sessions in the summer and new mathematics textbooks.

Q. How did you narrow the achievement gap in your school?

Jamie Nutter, superintendent, and Carmen Burkum, principal, Fennimore Elementary School. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education.

Jamie Nutter, superintendent, and Carmen Burkum, principal, Fennimore Elementary School.
Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education.

Jamie Nutter, superintendent: Collaboration is the key. We formed grade-level professional learning communities (PLCs) and created a common language, so that when we were talking about strategies, everybody knew what everyone else was talking about. That created more coherence within the organization so that, for example, our third-grade teachers weren’t all doing their own things. They were working toward the same objectives and goals.

Carmen Burkum, principal: The single most important factor was that we defined success as measureable success, instead of being how we thought we did. We had baseline and benchmark data, and we used the data to monitor our progress. We made sure that, at , the data were not included in teacher evaluations. We told the teacfirsthers we will never include this in your evaluation as long as you respond when students aren’t achieving. Had we included that in their evaluations, teachers would have set that bar low. Saying it wasn’t included raised the standards.

Q. What are you proudest of at your school?

Burkum: I’m proudest of the relationships we have at our school. We’re a small district.  That allows us to really get to know students and their families, and we can really drive the curriculum toward what students actually need. The entire community is very supportive of what we do and it creates a very positive culture and climate in the school.

Q. How do you think about college and career readiness in Fennimore?

Nutter: Our poverty rate is more than 46 percent. But we want our kids to know that just because you’re from Fennimore doesn’t mean you can’t be a doctor, a lawyer or a teacher. You can be whatever you want to be if you have the work ethic. We’ve seen a culture change at the high school. A few years ago we had only two percent of our students in AP classes; now it’s 20 percent.

You can learn more about Fennimore’s efforts and success here.

National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Creating a Path to Higher Education – Early College High School, Farmers Branch, Texas

Students from Early College High School gather outside of the school to celebrate being chosen as a 2014 National Blue Ribbon School. Students at the center of the picture are holding the National Blue Ribbon School banner that the school received with the award.

Students at Early College High School celebrate being chosen as a 2014 National Blue Ribbon School. Photo Credit: Early College High School.

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

Early College High School on the campus of Brookhaven College in Farmers Branch, Texas, has 315 students in grades 9–12. Eighty-five percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, and 65 percent are English learners or had previously learned English in school.

The school is the highest performing high school in the district, and 100 percent of its seniors graduated in 2012. Sixty-nine of the school’s 89 graduates had associate degrees by the time they graduated, and 90 percent of them enrolled in a four-year college.

The school receives funding from Title I, which it used for Saturday school to provide extra support for students. To hear more from Michael Arreola about Early College High School’s philosophy and how the school uses Federal Title I funds watch this video.

Q. How do you promote high performance?

Michael Arreola, principal: Many of our students will be the first in their families to go to college, so we have to eliminate mental obstacles. We have student advisories, and in them we focus on growth and teaching students grit, perseverance and resiliency. We teach them the behavioral science behind the mindset we want to instill. We teach them that their future is not determined by IQ or by what people say you are.

In our professional learning communities (PLCs) for teachers, we don’t just discuss strategies but go into the science and the research behind the strategies.

We have high expectations for students and use innovative strategies such as project-based learning and peer mentoring by current college students. We encourage our students to be the very best they can be, and the staff provides a lot of emotional support.

We don’t focus on what’s missing, the TBUs—true but useless. Since not all of our students’ parents went to college we help them learn how to encourage their students to adopt habits that will lead to success in school and college.

With the help of parents, our school is the light that will lead our students to success.

Q. What other strategies do you use?

Arreola: Of course, we focus on academics and the rigorous things students need to do to be successful. All ninth graders are placed in all pre-Advanced

Placement core courses as well as in dual-credit elective courses, and all of our high school courses are designed to have our students completely college ready, according to the Texas Success Initiative standards, by the end of their ninth grade year.

We also celebrate successes. Every Thursday, we have a bell-ringing ceremony. Students who have been accepted to college parade through the hallways ringing a bell to be celebrated by students and staff, and we post acceptance letters on the bulletin board. Younger students strive to be part of this ceremony. We also have a senior walk ceremony, during which we recognize students who have earned scholarships and associate degrees.

We are constantly telling students that what they work for, they can get. We are trying to change family trees—even if the seed we planted won’t grow until the next generation. We are growing citizens. Our valedictorian in 2014 came to the United States in sixth grade as an English learner. He is now going to Harvard and wants to go home to Mexico after college to create opportunities for people there through government and education.

You can learn much more about Early College High School’s efforts and success here.

National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Reinforcing Interventions for Success Anaconda High School, Anaconda, Montana

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

Anaconda High School is located in an old mining community in the southwestern region of Montana, a region that has seen significant economic change. As a result, the school’s enrollment is falling, and more families qualify for low-income assistance. The school now serves 314 students. Forty-two percent of them are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, and the special education population is twice the State average.

To meet all students’ needs, Anaconda partnered with a nearby community college to offer dual credit in seven classes. That allows students who pass those classes to start college with as many as 24 credits. The school works with the colleges to ensure that its graduates are ready to study college-level technical classes right from the start, without having to take remedial classes. A partnership with the Montana Digital Academy lets students take advanced classes in mathematics, science, technology and foreign languages. Another program makes it possible for students to obtain certification in a trade while still in school. Collectively, these programs give students the opportunity to make their own educational goals and pursue them.

This graphic has a quote from Paul Furthmyre, the principal of Anaconda High School: “The key is to know what the big audacious goal is and to not change the goal even if you don’t get the results you want right away.”The school is making significant strides in improving student performance, increasing the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced on the State mathematics test from 37 percent in school year (SY) 2008–2009 to 61 percent in SY 2012–2013. At the same time, the school’s graduation rate has steadily increased, reaching 81 percent in SY 2012–2013.  Attendance is up and tardiness and referrals for discipline are down.

Q. How do you promote improvements in student achievement?

Paul Furthmyre, principal: A lot has been thrown at our staff, and I am really proud of their resiliency. We were losing students and staff. So we formed a leadership team with an English teacher, science teacher, librarian, special education teacher and intervention teacher. The team identified the assessments we needed to get data on student needs as well as the strategies that could meet their needs.

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National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Open to New Ideas Stella May Swartz Elementary School, Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois

Students at Stella May Swartz cheering

Students and teachers at Stella May Swartz Elementary School celebrate after learning their school had been designated a 2014 Blue Ribbon School.
Credit: Angeline Ross

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

 Stella May Swartz Elementary School, a grade 2–4 school located in suburban Chicago, has a diverse student body of 160 students, 45 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. In 2012, 100 percent of the school’s third-grade students met or exceeded State standards in mathematics, and 91 percent met or exceeded State standards in reading on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test. The school uses Title I funds for reading specialists, reading materials and professional development.

In 2011, nearby Salt Creek Primary, which serves pre-kindergarten through first grade students, and Swartz adopted a new reading and language arts program that provided teachers with a wealth of materials, allowing them to differentiate instruction according to students’ needs. The materials were more advanced but students were able to rise to the challenge. Teachers closely monitored students’ progress and used data to tailor interventions to their specific needs. The staff took a similar approach in mathematics.

Q. How do you promote teacher and leader effectiveness?

 Angeline Ross, principal: Our teachers never say no and keep things positive—we are trying to teach that behavior to our students. Our teachers are always trying something new—we introduce at least one new strategy each year. One year it was guided reading; another year it was using smart boards. Our teachers are always brainstorming and problem solving because they care about more than just the kids in their grade levels. They care about all kids. I try to schedule common planning time for the teachers and they team teach. We also do a lot of professional development. I will go to a professional development workshop and bring information back to the school or bring in an outsider to the school.

Deborah Butman, fourth-grade teacher: It starts with the principal. She gets her hands dirty and is very collaborative, suggesting different ways to teach a specific piece. If the principal is willing to take risks and be open with teachers, teachers will be more open with each other and with the kids.

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National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Rigorous Expectations in a Supportive Environment University High School, Fresno, California

University High School Building

University High School, Fresno, California.
Credit: University High School Permission: University High School

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

University High School in Fresno, California, is a grade 9–12 college-prep public charter school. The school focuses on liberal arts and music and is located on the campus of California State University, Fresno. The high school has about 500 students, and all of them graduate having earned as much as two years of college credits. The school draws students who want a college-prep education from 35 zip codes in 9 cities.

In school year (SY) 2012–2013, the school earned the seventh best score in the State on the California Academic Performance Index. Ninety-seven percent of students scored proficient or advanced in reading on the State test.

Q. What strategies do you use to promote high performance among students?

James Bushman, principal: It starts with our belief that kids can do rigorous work. We are a college prep school, requiring students to take four years of English, with Advanced Placement (AP) both junior and senior years; three to four years of a foreign language, including two years of Latin; four years of science, including college courses in biology and environmental science; and four years of math, including Algebra II freshman year and AP Calculus and Statistics in junior or senior years. We also require students to take music all four years. And all of our students graduate having taken at least one year of college courses.

We also have a required elective session at the end of each semester. These elective sessions vary from seven to ten days but all students sign up for one or two intensive classes during this period. These classes provide students a unique experience separate from the academic work they take during the regular semester.

Because all students are required to take Algebra II freshman year, everyone must have passed Algebra I with a grade of B or better to be admitted. But Algebra I preparation varies a lot depending on what school our students attended previously, so we are looking at ways to make learning more personalized and student centered.

Jim Torrance, teacher: Another thing we do to promote high performance is our 48 Books initiative, which has contributed to our success in English language arts. We require continuous reading outside of class every year of high school, so we buy a book a month and give a copy to every student for all four years. All of these books are integrated into the English language arts classroom. It becomes a shared library, and we choose books that help them become better adults.

It’s amazing what students can do when they have support and everybody is having the same experience. In my English class, everybody turns in every paper. We aren’t forcing students to be in class.

Bushman: We have an obligation to make sure no child is left behind.

One strategy we use is to focus on character education. Character really does matter. Students treat each other better and are more motivated than in a traditional high school. Five years ago, we wrote a code of character with three pillars: being understanding, being honorable and being studious. It was a joint effort with students and the faculty.

We do a lot to promote the code of character, even before students come to the school. On orientation day, we discuss it and teachers talk about it in the first week. We do surveys and teachers model behavior. You can push hard, but students need a lot of nurturing, and teachers have to respect the students. We have a teaching staff that cares and creates an environment of acceptance and tolerance.

Q. What other strategies do you use?

 Bushman: For the past five years, we also have had students fill out feedback forms for each class they take, which has made our teachers much more responsive. Students will say things to teachers such as “no more pop quizzes, just be clear about expectations.” And teachers are responding to this feedback—the students don’t say the same things about teachers that they did five years ago. In fact, we used to do the survey at the end of the year, but now we do it in December, so we can incorporate the feedback from students into classrooms right away.

 One of things we are proudest of is the environment we created at our school. Parents love it, and students drive an hour each way every day to get there because they couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. Teachers say it is the best place to work because they have the autonomy to teach what they want and students love to learn.

You can learn more about University High School’s efforts and success at the here.