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‘This can be done’: Baker-Butler Elementary earns national recognition for closing achievement gaps

The staff at Baker-Butler Elementary celebrated virtually Friday after the U.S.Department of Education named their school a National Blue Ribbon School for its success in closing achievement gaps.

“The timing of [the award is] great as we’re all working really hard during difficult times,” said Seth Kennard, Baker-Butler’s principal. “It’s recognition that all the hard work of the teachers and staff is having an impact. … It’s also what happened because we have a group of teachers that just believe in our kids and want to look at their kids as individuals and build relationships with them and have them succeed.”

Baker-Butler is one of four schools in Virginia to receive the award, and the third county school to earn a National Blue Ribbon recognition, according to the U.S. Department of Education records. The award was based on standards of learning test scores in reading and math over a three-year period starting with the 2016-17 school year.

During those three years, Baker-Butler narrowed achievement gaps among student demographic groups, including English language learners, students from economically disadvantaged homes and those with disabilities. At Baker-Butler, about a quarter of students are economically disadvantaged, 10% are English Learners and 13% of students have disabilities.

School closures because of the COVID-19 pandemic canceled state testing this year, and classes started virtually this school year.

In interviews Friday, teachers and school administrators pointed to their relationships with students, staff teamwork and not focusing on the test scores as helping the school close achievement gaps.

Kennard said that in many ways the award is part of former principal Steve Saunders’ legacy at the school.

“[Closing gaps] is hard work, but it’s worthwhile work and what I think this award does is allow us as a group to pause for a second and celebrate it,” said Saunders, who served as principal from 2014 and 2019 before moving to the same position at Greer Elementary.

In the 2015-16 school year, 82% of students overall passed the reading SOL. The average pass rate for students from learning English, students from economically disadvantaged homes and disabled students was 58%. By the 2018-19 school year, 74% of those students passed the reading SOL compared to 85% of the overall student body, according to the division.

On the math SOL exam, the gap narrowed from 16 percentage points to six over the three-year period. In 2018-19, 90% of students passed the exam.

When including students’ growth, the average pass rate for students in those groups was 88% in math and 80% in reading. Five years ago, 48% of students passed the math exam and 44% passed the reading one, Saunders said.

“I think it’s relevant to make sure that people understand that this can be done,” he said. “And so often what happens is that we’ve seen numbers and they’re depressing, we see gaps and they’re depressing, and we feel powerless.”

But he hoped the award would show teachers that though closing achievement gaps is hard work, it can be done.

Albemarle and Charlottesville school divisions have said closing achievement gaps is a priority as they tackle equity issues, though the state test scores have been difficult to significantly budge.

Saunders said there’s no secret sauce to Baker-Butler’s work.

“It’s just a commitment to doing the right things and doing them with fidelity and doing them well and doing them collectively,” he said.

Those right things included building relationships with students and families, using common assessments, ensuring students are taught each state standard and a focus on deeper learning and project-based learning, among others.

“I also don’t want us to be viewed as doing something so revolutionary as literally making sure that we covered all of the state standards as we taught,” Saunders said.

Hillary Hensley, who taught fifth grade at Baker-Butler, said the administration told her not to worry about the test; fifth-graders typically take four SOL tests. Rather, she wanted to build rapport and trust with students so they felt comfortable making mistakes while learning.

“We’re really big into gaming gamification and turning every day into a fun positive environment,” she said. “I think that helps with attendance and kids who don’t always feel successful in school. When they come into your classroom and feel like a part of your community where they’re either free and safe to make mistakes and learn with you, it really helps.”

Tammy Schwab, who teaches kindergarten and first grade students, said using the Responsive Classroom model has helped to forge bonds with students.

“We start school-wide every day with a morning meeting,” Schwab said, adding that the meeting includes time for students to share with one another and complete an activity. “… I think that just starts the day with everyone smiling, happy greeting each other and I think that is invaluable.”

Schwab said the award was the result of everyone working together.

“I feel like we’re one big team, and it’s just amazing,” Schwab said. “We’re going through some tough stuff right now, but I think this is just a huge positive and highlight.”

Saunders said the focus was to build a sustainable model for raising student achievement, not just boosting test scores.

“I’m what I’m really excited about is that Baker-Butler is just going to continue to do well because they’ve got this really good foundation,” Saunders said. “ … What I’m what I’m thrilled about is that the sustainable model will continue to get better and I think that this wasn’t a one off, and what I think is impressive about the award is that it was over time.”

During virtual classes, Kennard said the school staff continued to apply what they know works and held one-on-one meetings with families before the year started.

“[We’re] finding ways to let our students know that they’re loved and that they’re understood and that we want to keep them engaged and we care about them,” he said. “[The award] has been nice at this time to remind us that all of this hard work we’re doing leads to the outcomes we’re trying to get and our work to try to make it work in this setting is worthy.”

Meanwhile, he’s figuring out the best way to celebrate the award in the middle of the pandemic after breaking the news during a virtual staff meeting Friday.

“So it’s one of those things that’s a massive honor and a massive accomplishment that I would love to grab this faculty together after school and have balloons and have Steve riding on a white horse, and it would have been a wonderful thing,” he said of telling the school’s staff.


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