LITTLE ROCK -- Arkansas schools in Conway, El Dorado, Hot Springs and Portland are among 325 campuses nationally to be named Tuesday as National Blue Ribbon Schools for 2021 by the U.S. Department of Education.
The honored schools are:
• Carolyn Lewis Elementary School in the Conway School District.
• Hugh Goodwin Elementary School in the El Dorado School District.
• Park Magnet School in the Hot Springs School District.
• Portland Elementary School in East Portland, part of the Hamburg School District.
The annual school recognition program is based on the overall exemplary academic performance of students at a school or on the exemplary progress a school has made in closing the achievement gaps between student subgroups.
"I commend ... all our Blue Ribbon honorees for working to keep students healthy and safe while meeting their academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs," U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said Tuesday.
"In the face of unprecedented circumstances, you found creative ways to engage, care for, protect, and teach our children," he said. "Blue Ribbon Schools have so much to offer and can serve as a model for other schools and communities so that we can truly build back better."
In the small Portland Elementary, Principal Cristy West teased her staff Tuesday morning with blue and gold-balloon decorations and matching cupcakes but didn't share the news of the award until 2:15 p.m.
"I've got a really dedicated staff," said West, a 36-year educator, including 16 years as principal. "They have high expectations for these kids. We don't let our kids make excuses and we try not to make excuses. We expect something good from all of them."
Both Portland Elementary and Hugh Goodwin Elementary in El Dorado were honored for their successes in closing achievement gaps between student subgroups. Carolyn Lewis Elementary in Conway and Park Magnet School in Hot Springs were recognized for high achievement.
West said the winning schools were evaluated based on their lengthy applications and their 2018-19 scores on the the ACT Aspire exams,, which were given in third through 10th grades before the covid-19 pandemic that resulted in the cancellation of the Aspire tests in the spring of 2020. Testing resumed in the spring of 2021 but the results were not available until after the Blue Ribbon applications were submitted earlier this year.
Portland Elementary, a state A-graded prekinderten-through-fifth grade school, features a literacy curriculum that has been used for more than 20 years. That Direct Instruction program is characterized by the use of teacher scripts for classrooom instruction. West said it can be a time-consuming program that requires a lot of training for teachers but "We've stuck with it" and "It's been really good for us."
The school that has widespread community support also features departmentalization and "looping" in which third-through-fifth grade pupils keep their same reading teacher as they move through the grades, along with the same languages arts teacher and the same math teacher.
Hugh Goodwin Elementary, where Jesica Collins, is the principal, serves 489 kindergarten-through- fourth graders. The state-graded A school seeks to "produce students who have a strong understanding of the curriculum, but we also want our students to have an appreciation for the arts, a strong sense of connection with our community, and to harbor a sense of self-worth," according to the school's National Blue Ribbon Schools description.
"To provide all our students with the targeted instruction needed to be successful, Hugh Goodwin employs full-time, highly trained paraprofessionals that provide intensive intervention in both literacy and math for struggling students," the Blue Ribbon application states. "These paraprofessionals, along with classroom teachers, meet with students in small group and one-on-one settings to re-teach and reinforce skills."
Carolyn Lewis Elementary, where Stacy DeFoor is the principal, is one of the newest and largest elementary schools in Conway with 507 pupils in kindergarten through fourth grades.
"Overall, learning never stopped for Carolyn Lewis Elementary students as parents were given resources and devices that allowed students to connect to teachers on a regular basis," the school's Blue Ribbon application said about the past school year that was made up of both onsite and remote instruction because of the covid-19 pandemic.
"Teachers worked to meet with struggling learners to keep them motivated in the curriculum while support staff worked to provide resources for word study and family activities. While learning looked different, it was still occurring and the teachers were collecting important data that has led to specific data driven instructional practices within the classroom. Most importantly, the continued effort to collect and disaggregate data will allow future educators the benefit of knowing exactly how to best serve every student walking through the classroom door when they return for the 2021-2022 academic year."
Park Magnet, a prekindergarten-through-sixth-grade school for 400 students under the supervision of Principal Sarah Oatsvall, has been named a National Blue Ribbon School for the third time. The school was previously recognized in 2009 and 2015.
The school is distinguished by being the only International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme in Arkansas. That program focuses on student engagement through inquiry and reflection.
The curriculum is rigorous and meant to develop lifelong learners who are "empowered to create a more peaceful world through an understanding and respect of cultural diversity and inclusion," the Blue Ribbon Program description states.
"As an IB school, inquiry-based and trans-disciplinary learning are our chief forms of instruction," it continues. "We offer regular Spanish instruction for all students in kindergarten through sixth grade as our secondary language. We partner with multiple community organizations to provide students with a plethora of service opportunities and learning engagements outside of the school walls."
The U.S. Department of Education invites National Blue Ribbon Schools nominations from the top education official in all states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, the Department of Defense Education Activity, and the Bureau of Indian Education. Private schools are nominated by the Council for American Private Education.
The National Blue Ribbon Schools program is in its 39th year.