State Recognizes Six City Schools with Awards

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What does it take to be recognized as one of Virginias premierepublic schools? Look no further than George Mason Elementary School.

For Masons principal, Dawn Feltman, the formula for success is simple enough to break down, but one that is not at all simple to replicate.

I have a very seasoned, veteran staff, theres a huge amount of parental support and the kind of kids at our school theyre high performing kids, Feltman said.

Feltmans school recently received the Governors Award for Educational Excellence, part of a Virginia Board of Education program aimed at encouraging learning and achievement in the Commonwealths public schools, according to a January 15 press release on the Department of Educations website.

Mason is one of 162 schools in the state to earn the award, which is part of a multi-tiered program based on the Virginia Index of Performance.

Four Alexandria elementary schools Douglas MacArthur, James K. Polk, Lyles-Crouch and Samuel W. Tucker earned the second-tier honor, the Board of Education Excellence Award. Charles Barrett Elementary School was recognized in the third tier, earning the Boards Competence to Excellence Award.

This years award marks the second time in as many years that Mason has achieved at that level, Feltman said.

The recognition provides a bit of assurance for the school that the school is meeting and exceeding state and federal benchmarks consistently and allows staff to incorporate different, newer teaching methods.

At the beginning of the school year I talked with the teachers about the fact that were a school thats really past the Standards of Learning and I want them to be thinking about 21st century learning skills, working more with experiential learning and integrating technology, Feltman said.

As part of this effort, Feltman said some teachers have been using Smartboards in the classroom, while others have made blogging and even podcasts or iStories part of the learning experience. Feltman thinks that advances like this will turn out to benefit the lower performing students as much, if not more, than the higher performing students who make up the majority of her school.

At MacArthur, one of the school systems largest primary schools, improvement is the recent trend. Principal Deborah Thompson said this years award is an improvement from last years success, when they received the Boards third-tier honor.

We looked in our areas that were areas of weakness and once again we were still doing well and tried to target instruction in those specific areas, Thompson said. As principal, Im always going to look at those areas of weakness and try to improve there.

Thompson said the students and teachers worked more intensely on writing skills over the past year, to help the students become more familiar with both the form and function of writing as it relates to the states standards, helping the students better show what they know when it came time to do so.

Along with writing, improving math scores was a point of emphasis within the school. Thompson said that the school held classes before and after school, as well as review groups for any students they thought would benefit from them, with teachers often arriving to work with students at 7 a.m.

Math has since become a strength at MacArthur, according to Thompson, who cited the work of the schools math coach with students and teachers.

If we give our teachers the skills to be better math teachers or better science teachers or better reading teachers, then its the children that benefit, Thompson said. We dont have a goal that were going to go the next step [of the Standards of Learning], but that each child does better than they did last year.

All totaled, six of Alexandrias 13 elementary schools received some sort of recognition.

Among the schools not receiving an award was Jefferson-Houston School for Arts and Academics, where principal Kimberley Graves sees both hurdles to be bested and potential to be fulfilled.

The major challenge that I find is maintaining and being able to create a reputation of excellence here at Jefferson-Houston and that hasnt been the case, as our first year of accreditation was just last year, Graves said.

Until last year, Jefferson-Houston had not met the necessary levels of Adequate Yearly Progress in all demographic sub-groups that are required to earn accreditation through the state for meeting its standards.

Graves, who is in her third year at the school, said that her schools high poverty population 87 percent of Jefferson-Houstons students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch, a common barometer for measuring poverty is a challenge, but one that should not have a major bearing on the schools efforts to succeed.

When it comes to getting Jefferson-Houston to a point where earning accreditation is no longer the main hurdle, but a matter of course, Graves says the school has the programs in place to lead the school down a path of excellence.

We want to get to the point where academic excellence is the norm, Graves said. There is the potential here to make Jefferson-Houston one of the best schools in Alexandria, and given the time and commitment of the community, the staff and the students, we will definitely get there.

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