For the first time in Virginia, a school has been named a National Blue Ribbon School for closing achievement gaps between their overall student population and English Learners, special education students, and students from economically disadvantaged homes.
A leading priority for schools across the country, closing achievement gaps between students of all demographic and economic backgrounds and the general student population has been a continuing challenge for decades. The U.S. Department of Education’s National Blue Ribbon Schools Program recognizes schools that have shown significant progress in closing these gaps.
According to the Virginia Department of Education, of 1,833 schools in the state, 58, or three percent, met the criteria for the Blue Ribbon Program’s Exemplary Award for Closing Achievement Gaps. The U.S. Department of Education announced this week that Baker-Butler is one of four schools in the state to receive the award this year.
Baker-Butler’s selection was based upon Standards of Learning (SOL) test scores in reading and math over a three-year period beginning with the 2016-17 school year. Pass rates for every student membership group increased each year on the reading and math SOL exams, and overall, these rates reached 91 percent in reading and 94 percent in math. These gains included increases between 25 and 30 percent for English L learners, special education students, and students from economically disadvantaged homes, designated as Gap Group 1 by the state and federal departments of education.
As a result of these gains, achievement gaps between student membership groups decreased every year. For example, the gap in math between students with disabilities and the school average declined from 34 to 12 percentage points, and the gap in reading between Hispanic students and the overall school average was eliminated. Over the past five years at Baker-Butler, the achievement gap between Black students and White students decreased from 40 to 13 percentage points in reading and from 38 to six percentage points in math.
“This award not only recognizes the depth of talent and dedication of our staff team, but also the perseverance of our students. I am honored, together with Dr. Saunders, to celebrate the success of all of our students,” said Seth Kennard, Baker-Butler’s principal.
Kennard attributed much of this success to the priority that teachers place on project-based learning, which he said emphasizes not just the answer to a problem, but the process. “Students must deeply understand the purpose and meaning behind what they are trying to accomplish and use their new content knowledge to get there. This generates a level of ownership on the part of students that, in turn, leads to high levels of understanding,” he added.
Dr. Steve Saunders, who served as Baker-Butler’s principal between 2014 and 2019, which included the three-year award period, said that although the award was based on test scores, that was never his primary focus. “Closing achievement gaps, making it possible for every student to learn at a high level, has to be primarily about names, not numbers. What really made me proud about our Baker-Butler team was its collective vision around meeting this challenge. Our teachers truly cared about every single child, they knew the strengths and needs of every learner, and they developed strategies and relationships that fit each child. There is no way to do this without that heavy degree of personal investment,” he said.
“Learning the strengths and weaknesses of individual students makes it possible for me to know which teaching strategies will be best for them,” said Tammy Schwab, who teaches kindergarten and first-grade students. “The bonds and relationships with students and families get stronger the second year we spend together, and the successes of each student are realized every day,” she said.
Hillary Hensley, who teaches fifth-grade students, said one of her most effective techniques was the use of gamification strategies to not only engage students with content, but also as a social and emotional connection. “Students did very well in helping their peers, volunteering in class, making mistakes (yes, mistakes!) and correcting them, showing grit and determination,” she noted.
Overall, during the three-year award period, the pass rate for Gap Group 1 students on the reading SOL increased to 80 percent. For these students, pass rates on the math SOL improved to 88 percent. During this same time frame, overall pass rates for all students in the school on the reading SOL rose by 11 percent and by 15 percent on the math SOL. During this same time, the number of students in Gap Group 1 grew from 183 to 243.
As the diversity of the school’s student body has broadened, Beth Roesch, a fourth-grade teacher, said, “Getting to know the student, his/her culture and lifestyle outside of the classroom, is essential in building classroom communities where different backgrounds are recognized and celebrated. Teachers are able to collaborate and provide the best learning experience for students who may have struggled with an achievement gap,” she said.
“A huge part of students passing their SOL tests came from their positive and confident mindsets. SOL testing is a stressful event in third grade because it is their first time participating in a test like that. We discussed and practiced strategies for coping with stress, developing confidence, and supporting each other. Our kids would write each other letters and share supportive chants and speeches to verbalize how proud they were of their peers’ efforts,” said third-grade teacher, Sarah Shafran.
Among the hallmarks of Saunders’ approach to overall school performance was the application of design thinking principles, which relies on empathy and innovation strategies to improve performance. “Over the past several years, teachers and administrators have joined together to transition Project-Based Learning Projects into Design Thinking projects. Students empathize, define the project, make prototypes, test their projects, and share the final project. Establishing a sense of empathy for others has helped to encourage our students to take risks and feel supported by our school community,” according to second-grade teacher, Lisa Baker.
It’s an approach that has worked very well, said Lisa Harman, the school’s media specialist and Nancy Williams, a second-grade teacher. “All of our teachers work together to ensure success for all students. We meet and plan in grade-level teams and across grade levels and disciplines to create engaging lessons. Many of our teachers use design thinking principles to encourage students to apply their learning to solve real world problems,” they said.
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