Fifth-grade teacher Tracy Trego checks in on students playing a number game about negative and positive numbers during her class at Mann Elementary School (Boone County). Photo by Amy Wallot, May 1, 2014

Fifth-grade teacher Tracy Trego checks in on students playing a number game about negative and positive numbers during her class at Mann Elementary School (Boone County).
Photo by Amy Wallot, May 1, 2014

By Susan Riddell

When Mann Elementary School (Boone County) opened its doors eight years ago, the school motto was taken from the school’s namesake, Shirley Mann. Her philosophy was “choose joy.”

“That was her motto in the classroom, so we took it, and we apply it to everything we do,” said Connie Crigger, who has been the school’s only principal. “The Choose Joy Award is the big award we give to a 5th grader each year, and we feel that choosing joy every day is something that has a big impact on our school.”

Mann Elementary was recently named a 2013 National Blue Ribbon School. With solid assessment results the past several years, Crigger said choosing joy and applying strong service projects that go beyond the walls of the school are the biggest reasons for schoolwide and Blue Ribbon success.

“It makes a huge impact,” Crigger said. “We know that learning environments are crucial to learning success. It’s something that was important to me when the doors to this building opened, and our staff knows that it’s vital to getting these kids prepared with the 21st century skills they need.”

Lisa Willoughby also has been with the school from its beginning, teaching 2nd grade.

She said Mann teachers help create a positive culture from the simplest of gestures to a consistent behavior monitoring system.

“It is clear from the moment you enter the school that it is a positive, respectful environment where adults and students clearly want to be,” Willoughby said. “Teachers strive to always put the children first in every decision we make. We have implemented programs or initiatives that strengthen our students’ academic and emotional well-being.

“I am very proud to say that our staff sees the big picture when considering our students,” she added. “We don’t focus solely on test scores and assessment data. We consider how and what will be best for them in their future. This is what matters as educators or at least it should be, in my opinion.”

Two efforts that follow the school’s motto and contribute to student success are Maverick Mentors and Mann Ambassadors.

Maverick Mentors partners 4th and 5th graders with the Mann Elementary special needs students. The idea came from one of the parents of an autistic student at the school. The parent created the program as her commitment project while participating in the Governor’s Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership program.

“This program has strengthened school community while students recognize and embrace each other’s differences,” 5th grade teacher Tracy Trego said. “As a classroom teacher, I feel there is nothing more important than making a child feel valued and respected.”

Crigger said that teachers refer students for the mentor program. They meet with the special needs students daily. They’ll play games with them, help with any academic lessons or whatever else is needed.

“When our autism kids see those mentors, they just light up. It will bring you to tears,” Crigger said. “It’s been a phenomenal program for us, and we’re hoping to expand it more next year.”

About 30 students participate in Mann Ambassadors each year, Crigger said. These students sign up to represent the school in a variety of ways. Their main effort, however, is running a bookstore with all the profits going to a charity or a way to specifically help students at the school.

“These are students who want to do this,” Crigger said. “They have to get a teacher to give them a reference, but what they do is amazing. Right now, we’re selling spirit items to raise money for a buddy bench.”

A buddy bench is a bench used to make children not feel so alone. If a child doesn’t have anyone to play with on a playground, he or she can go to the buddy bench, and someone will know to go play with the child.

“If the kids raise enough money, they said they’d buy two benches; they’re that focused on doing great things,” Crigger said.

Trego said all students participate in grade-level service learning projects.

This year, for example, students have raised $4,000 for a local children’s hospital. She said the thought process behind the grade-level service learning projects is “so that our students are taught life lessons and realize they are a valued member of the community. (Mann Elementary) knows students can learn while feeling respected, valued and loved,” Trego said. “Once I have accomplished that, I am able to reach them effectively with the lessons I develop.”

Crigger said these projects also have an impact of her teachers.

“The teachers are raising and teaching leaders,” Crigger said. “If we’re teaching leaders, we have to model that for students. We do a great deal of group and partner teaching, too, so basically our teachers have to be ready to give their best every day. I feel like the teachers here do model success and leadership very well.”

While teachers can use these projects to build up their own practices, that can in turn help with other collaborations or peer reviews that can impact teacher results in the Professional Growth and Effectiveness System, Crigger added.

Trego and Willoughby agreed that in addition to teacher collaboration, they also benefit from having a principal who allows them try new things and trust their understanding on content.

“Mrs. Crigger values me as an educator the same as she values our students,” Trego said. “At Mann, I feel confident that I have the freedom to constantly look for new improvements in my teaching practice. This year, students have been permitted to bring their own devices into the classroom; so many lessons have been integrated with technology.

“It has allowed me to reach my students regarding homework, book talks, surveys, etc.,” Trego added. “During our many snow days this year, it was a great way to keep the learning ongoing. Integrating the technology has been a lot of positive change, long hours and hard work. However, it has been exciting, motivating and it was best for our kids.”

According to Willoughby, Mann Elementary teachers work together to grow professionally and better themselves in the classroom.

“I leave late many nights and still see multiple cars in the parking lot,” she said. “Our staff is committed to planning and implementing instruction in the best way possible for all learners. The bar is set high here, and the educators who work in this building will do everything they can to meet the expectations.

“The academic success at our school is a product of a clear vision and realistic goals,” Willoughby added. “Our staff has a common mission – we of course strive to meet the states expectations on standardized testing – but first and foremost we strive to meet the needs of our students. By doing this we have managed to successfully reach the academic index set forth by the state each year and managed to maintain a climate in which our teachers and students are happy to be part of. Mann Elementary is a place that exudes positive energy and high expectations.”