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National Blue Ribbon Schools Program

As teachers take on more roles, including counselor, social worker and therapist, one question has remained daunting: How do you teach and engage a student who might not be able to prioritize school when they have complex situations at home or they're worried about whether they'll have dinner that night?

But several schools in Iowa and Illinois have done just that, earning Blue Ribbon Certification while also being classified as Title I schools — meaning they have a high concentration of low-income students and receive federal funding to help students meet educational goals. Blue Ribbon Certification is awarded by the U.S. Department of Education to schools that are considered high-achieving based on state assessments or national tests. 

Five Title I schools in Iowa and Illinois were recently named a Blue Ribbon School. 

“We only have them eight hours a day. We want to make it the best eight hours of their day,” said Dan Grandfield, principal of Dayton Elementary School, a Title I school in Dayton, Iowa, that was named a Blue Ribbon School.

The National Blue Ribbon has been awarded for 37 years. This year, 362 schools — both Title I and not — will be honored in November as either an Exemplary High Performing School or an Exemplary Achievement Gap Closing School.

Herbert Hoover Elementary in Bettendorf was honored as a Blue Ribbon School in 2013, making it the only school in the Quad-Cities to receive that honor. It is not a Title I school. 

There are more than 30 public schools in the Quad-Cities identified as “Title I” schools. None of them have ever been honored by this particular award. Here’s what other Blue Ribbon, Title I schools are doing that’s been successful in their communities. 

Dayton Elementary School — Dayton, Iowa

Like many districts, Dayton Elementary offers “transitional kindergarten” as an option, Grandfield said. After preschool, staff members make recommendations to parents based on the child’s academic performance and maturity, but parents ultimately decide. 

“A parent can ask for their child to be put in,” he said. “We make recommendations to parents about what we think would be the best fit.” 

What makes the school unique, though, is the school-owned and -operated daycare, starting with kids as young as 6 weeks old. 

Since 1998, the daycare in the building has been entirely free to families, and Grandfield credited it as a major part of the school’s success. 

“The adults in the daycare are working with the kids on pre-academic skills,” he said. “When I looked at our current kindergarten, last year, we had 51 kids in kindergarten, and 28 of them were involved in our daycare program. It’s a unique thing because having them come in as babies … they tend to stay.” 

Additionally, meticulous weekly data is taken for elementary students in math or reading intervention groups, and Grandfield said there was an emphasis on helping teachers build personal relationships with their students, especially to address social-emotional and mental health issues. 

“We can’t control what happens when they go home,” he said. “That’s the biggest challenge. We can’t control what they go back to, or come from.”

Winterset Middle School — Winterset, Iowa

Principal Kevin Oswald said Winterset Middle School’s success came down to “data-driven decision making” and focusing on “essential standards.”

“We know what they want them to be able to do. You can address the data in a prescriptive way,” he said.

After about 10 years of tracking reading scores, and working out how to address problem areas with “Whatever I Need” time for interventions, consistency for several factors has been key, Oswald said. 

“It’s not one magic bullet,” he said. “You’ve got to do a series of things. I think the overall belief that all students can learn at high levels in an important one.” 

Despite their success, Oswald said the school was still working on being more holistic in how to prescribe services and programming to kids. 

“We’re taking a closer look at socio-emotional learning, and teaching the whole student,” he said. “It’s new to us, but I think that’s an important part of the whole puzzle.” 

Glen Oaks Elementary School — Hickory Hills, Illinois

“There is no one thing that I’m doing differently, said Kristin Reingruber, the principal of Glen Oaks Elementary School.

About 15 years ago, Glen Oaks — and the entire North Palos district — became very data-driven, superintendent Jeannie Stachowiak said. 

“We were performing right at the state level. He knew we could do more,” Reingruber said of an old superintendent. “Our data went from being right at the state average to where we are now. We’re usually right at the top of the list, especially if you control for some demographics.” 

In addition to being a Title I school, more than half of the students come from homes where English isn’t the only language spoken. 

“Our demographics would definitely say that we should be performing differently,” Stachowiak said. 

Teacher involvement in curriculum decisions has also been critical, Reingruber said. Between teachers, social workers, language teachers and interventionists, “nobody works in isolation.”  Glen Oaks was first awarded the Blue Ribbon in 2012, thanks to high expectations for kids, administrators and staff, regardless of demographics.

“On a daily basis, when our students come in, our teachers have those students from the time they come in and the time they leave, and they fill every minute with positive learning opportunities,” she said. “Every student can learn. They meet every student where they’re at.”

The other two Title I schools in Iowa and Illinois to be named Blue Ribbon Schools this year are Bannockburn School in Bannockburn, Illinois and Fredericksburg Elementary School in Fredericksburg, Iowa.

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