Highland receives Blue Ribbon honor
High-poverty school beats the odds in reading proficiency
What was once a poor Wheaton elementary school faced with being taken over by the state is now a part of the most elite 4 percent in the country.
Highland Elementary School, a Title 1 school with a poverty rate of almost 82 percent, is the second elementary school in Montgomery County to be named a National Blue Ribbon School since new guidelines for the award took into account poverty levels and improvement in achievement gaps.
Four years ago, it was on the brink of failure, but this year, 98 percent of students can read proficiently or on an advanced level.
"Same children, same socioeconomic status, drastically different results," said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in an interview after Tuesday's award ceremony at the school.
Since President George W. Bush's administration instituted No Child Left Behind in 2001, at least two out of six Blue Ribbon nominees for every state must be disadvantaged, said Darla Strouse, the executive director of the Blue Ribbon program for Maryland, who was also at Highland on Tuesday.
Although there were success stories before No Child Left Behind, they were more difficult to find amongst the shining stars of more affluent schools, Duncan said.
"We didn't do a good enough job of identifying them and putting a spotlight on it," Duncan said.
No Child Left Behind also put more emphasis on test scores instead of a more holistic approach—something Maryland has taken the lead in, Strouse said. And now states nominate schools as opposed to schools applying themselves, which levels the playing field for schools who can't afford to advocate for themselves, she said.
Montgomery County's other Title 1 Blue Ribbon winner, Viers Mill Elementary School, is just down the road from Highland in Wheaton. They took the title in 2005. About 12 Title 1 schools across the state are also Blue Ribbon schools, Strouse said.
Viers Mill principal Matt Devan credits the new regulations with recognizing more disadvantaged schools.
"It helps being more data driven as opposed to advocacy driven," he said.
But Strouse said she's convinced Highland would have been noticed by the national players on its own.
That's because every single fifth-grader had reading skills up to par or above it this year, said Highland principal Ray Myrtle in a ceremony that also included U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen Jr. (D-Dist. 8) of Kensington, Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry Weast, Maryland Superintendent Nancy Grasmick and numerous state delegates and county school board members.
However, Strouse said there's a movement across the country questioning the rigid emphasis on test scores. While the process monitors achievement gaps, it doesn't put much weight on a school's new, innovative programs or its connection to the community, she said.
"Everyone is so focused on scores that they don't have time to look at creative programs," she said.
Well, maybe that's measured indirectly, Myrtle said. He credits his school's excellent reading scores with "engaging curriculum" that got students motivated and interested.
Either way, strong leadership is the most essential piece of the puzzle, Duncan said. To make it clear, he awarded Myrtle the prestigious Terrel H. Bell Award for School Leadership—only 10 are given out each year across the nation.
"What's possible here is not some miracle but can really happen," Duncan told the students. "The eyes of the country are on you."