NATIONAL BLUE RIBBON AWARD
At Valley Falls Unified School District 338, a district of just 415 students, 36 teachers and two schools in Jefferson County, Kansas, students are doing well in reading. Last year, about 96 percent tested proficient or above on state English tests. The same was true for mathematics.
The staff members knew their students were doing well, but they were caught off guard this winter when the Kansas State Department of Education called to say the elementary was one of just five schools in the state nominated for a National Blue Ribbon Award - a U.S. Department of Education honor that recognizes top-preforming schools.
"It was quite an exciting phone call" says Susan Grey, principal of the preschool to 8th grade elementary and the high school next door.
Valley Falls Elementary was nominated based on its test scores in recent years. The nominees all showed either consistently high scores, as Valley Falls did, or exemplary progress. Winners will be selected based also on their approaches to instruction, community engagement, school leadership and other matters.
In Valley Falls, class sizes are typically about 13 to 18 kids, though the district has struggled to maintain that ratio, superintendent Loren Feldkamp says. About half of Valley Falls students qualify for free or reduced lunch based on low family income. The district has relatively low teacher turnover, administrators say, and staff design their own curriculums.
"We have a staff that is very engaged," says Grey, who taught at the district for 17 years before becoming principal. "They come, and they stay." Teachers meet at least once a week to collaborate on planning, and administrators try to prevent other obligations from eating their time.
Grey believes that is one reason students are doing well in math and reading.
And then there is the sense of community, something schools view as key to academic success. Grandparents' Day draws hundreds of people, and History Day, complete with storytelling and a Civil War-era cannon demonstration, does too. An annual Veterans Day event is especially popular with students and families, say Feldkamp.
Grey characterizes USD 338 as willing to "go out on a limb." It was an early proponent, she says, of teaching core subjects in small breakout groups to help students who are falling behind. Teachers monitor progress on a weekly basis and move students to and from breakout groups as needed.
On Friday afternoon, one such group sat cross-legged on a rug for a lesson on the letters X and V, while another occupied desks nearby, drawing science posters. A third group sat in a tight circle round their teacher, learning to count money.
Throughout the day, these students move around the room for various lessons, and the process, switch teachers and classmates. Despite all the activity, the teachers say students stay focused.
"We find there's very little distraction," says first-grader teacher Bonnie Johnson, who has taught at the school for 31 years.
Another teacher, Willie Schmelzle, thinks the teachers design flexible and creative lessons, and the students respond well.
"I think we have a good attitude," he says, "and the kids feel that."