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Chester Elementary wins California Distinguished School Award

M. Kate West
Chester Editor

    “April 15 – 16 were monumental dates for Chester Elementary School and for 483 other elementary schools that received a telephone call from California State Superintendent of Education Jack O’Connell,” said Chester Elementary School Principal Sally McGowan.
    She said the purpose of his calls was to announce winning the prestigious California Distinguished School Award and offer each school his personal congratulations.
 This award is made each year and alternates annually between eligible elementary and high schools within California’s 58 counties.
 CES was the only Plumas County elementary school eligible to apply for the award. To be eligible, elementary schools had to have achieved their annual growth target on the Academic Performance Index.
 McGowan said through the national “No Child Left Behind” legislation, California mandates schools have an initial target of an 800 API and a further requirement to improve upon that score each year.
 “In our last testing cycle, CES scored 883, which reflects a 15-point increase in the areas of math and English language arts,” she added.
 She also said that because of the requirement to continually increase API scores other issues would arise.
‘There will be fewer and fewer schools who will be able to meet this target,” she said.

Award value
    “Because our score allowed us to apply, we really had to consider the application seriously. I talked with staff and raised the question, do we want to do this?” she said.
 She said the application was a lengthy process with a very large paper packet.
 “Ultimately we knew it would be good for the school and good for the community — we gave it a shot,” McGowan said.
 She said an award of this kind reflects a healthy community. She said it lets potential homebuilders and others settling locally know they have good schools in the community.
 “I believe the award is a source of pride for the community and that it validates the hard work done by teachers, parents and the community in support of our wonderful school,” she said. “At CES we have high standards for academics and behavior. This confirms we can meet those high standards.”

Application process
    In addition to increasing its API, CES was required to identify and report two signature practices that contributed to the overall success of the school.
 “In describing our first practice we spoke to our monthly grade level collaboration, which is our way of closing what we call the achievement crack, a play on the phrase of slipping through the crack,” she said.
 A support team comprised of the principal, school nurse, special education teacher and speech and lingual pathologist meets with each teacher for a half-hour monthly to discuss the academic, health and social needs of students.
 “If any classroom teacher has a student on his or her radar for any issue, such as absenteeism or changes in behavior, the student becomes a focal point for monitoring and follow-up discussions,” she said.
 McGowan called it a “systematic approach for helping struggling students.”
 She also said, “Test data show those students who receive the targeted and systematic approach continue to make academic growth.”
 The second signature practice submitted in the application was about community support.    “We were very pleased to share that we live in a community where businesses, where service groups, parent volunteers and the Parent Teacher Association come together to support the school,” she said.
 She said contributions from the service organizations and local clubs allowed for special reading programs in the classrooms, financial contributions to the outdoor education program, purchased art supplies, supplying eye glasses to children in need, funds for the school’s music program.
 “Our local law enforcement officers put on an annual bike rodeo where students learn safety and receive donated bike helmets,” she said.
 She also talked about the local businesses that support the school’s “Milk Shake Math Program” by offering discounted products to teachers.
 She said local physicians, dentists and optometrist provide free and reduced healthcare to the children.
 She spoke highly about parents and grandparents who volunteer with the PTA and said members exceeded 3,500 hours last year in their fundraising activities, chaperoning and field trip support.
 She also talked about another form of critical support, parental feedback.
 “Ninety-five percent of our parents who responded and returned their survey either agreed or strongly agreed that CES provides a safe and supportive learning environment. They also said their child’s teacher had high expectations for learning and achievement, that the teachers set high standards and expect the child to come up to them,” McGowan said.

Site visit
    The next step in the process was the site visit that follows the application for the award.
 “Once we received the nomination, representatives from county offices of education throughout the state made site visits to confirm the nomination.” McGowan said.
 She said during that visit, parents were invited to meet with the representatives. She said they conducted group interviews and that “relevant questions were asked and answered” regarding the application.
 “The representatives spent an entire day here and talked to teachers and involved support staff. The representatives confirmed that what we wrote in the report was true,” she said.
 The California Distinguished School awards will be presented at a June 4 reception at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim.
“This is Chester Elementary School’s first award. We’re very proud of our school and very happy to recognize our teachers, parents, students and our community, because distinguished schools don’t do it alone,” McGowan said.


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