Second-grade student Ava Houze displays her paint covered hands during Nikki Everett's art class at Johnson Elementary School (Fort Thomas Independent). Photo by Amy Wallot, Oct. 21, 2014

Second-grade student Ava Houze displays her paint-covered hands during Nikki Everett’s art class at Johnson Elementary School (Fort Thomas Independent).
Photo by Amy Wallot, Oct. 21, 2014

By Brenna R. Kelly

Robert D. Johnson Elementary students know why their school was named a 2014 National Blue Ribbon school.

It’s school mascot J.J. the Jaguar, the “very caring counselor,” the instructional assistants, the “lunch ladies,” the custodians and, of course, the teachers.

Those are just some of the reasons that students wrote on paper ribbons taped to the gymnasium walls as the Fort Thomas Independent school celebrated the award recently.

“Teachers make learning fun even though we are really working,” read one ribbon.

The U.S. Department of Education chose Johnson Elementary as one of four public schools in Kentucky to receive the award this year. Johnson was recognized as an Exemplary High-Performing School, based on student achievement and several other research-based indicators of school quality.

Johnson has consistently ranked among the top elementary schools in the state. This year the 384-student school is ranked in the 99th percentile of Kentucky elementary schools in the Unbridled Learning College and Career-Readiness for All accountability model, giving it a Distinguished designation.

But at Johnson, it’s not just about test scores.

“The teachers, they make you feel like you are their own kid,” said 5th-grade student Chloe Bramble. “They help you excel and are always there for you. And I mean always, because all of Johnson is just one big family.”

Johnson is spread out in three buildings nestled along a residential street in Fort Thomas, a city of a 16,200 residents just south of Cincinnati. Students take classes in the same 1920s-era building where their parents and grandparents were taught.

“There’s just a lot of pride here,” said Principal Tonya Brummer, who is in her first year at the school. “The support from the community and the parents is just astounding. Our kids are prepared for school, they value education. It really is a special place.”

The school may be steeped in tradition, but teachers and administrators are trying new ways of teaching to enhance student learning.

Students rarely sit still at their desks or tables. They are up rehearsing a commercial for a colonial settlement in history class, curled up in a bean bag reading a book, huddled around a teacher using her best grandma voice while reading Roald Dahl’s “George’s Marvellous Medicine,” or sprawled on the floor putting together sentences.

In Nikki Everett’s 2nd-grade art class, students scurry around the small room grabbing markers, crayons or paint.

“Get your art supplies and get settled,” Everett tells them as they find a spot on the floor or at an easel or table. This year, Everett, the 2012 Kentucky Elementary Art Educator of the Year, implemented a choice-based art education program.

“It’s not, I’m coming up with the idea and you’re going to copy it, it’s you’re coming up with the idea. It’s your creative process,” she said. “They know the steps, they plan it, then they create, then they reflect on it and share with the class. Then they start over.”

The classroom walls are filled with posters about the elements and principles of art for reference. During class, Everett walks around the room offering individualized instruction.

“Everyone is always in a different place in their project and their development,” she said. “It’s working really well so far.”

Four years ago the school began a world-language program, with students taking Spanish once a week starting in kindergarten. Teacher Julie Dashley conducts the class entirely in Spanish.

“They soak it up because they just follow along and we do it all in Spanish,” she said. Sometimes students ask if she can even speak English.

To make sure teachers are continuing to learn, the school holds “power lunch” sessions on topics such as how to use PowerPoint, Excel Survey web apps or Twitter to develop professional learning networks.

In its Blue Ribbon application, the school noted that it has increased the rigor in classrooms and placed the focus on having students think critically to design, create and perform.

The school recently began using Everyday Math, a curriculum that allows for differentiated lessons for students who are struggling and for those who are excelling in mathematics. Some students are working on content for the next grade level.

The school also implemented a Response to Intervention (RtI) program that has allowed the staff to focus more on individual students and the interventions they need to grow and improve.

Brummer became principal after longtime principal Jon Stratton became assistant superintendent. She and guidance counselor Whitney McKay incorporated a superhero theme into the school’s character education program by using the traits of superheroes, such as caring, responsibility and respect. When a teacher sees a student exhibiting a trait, the student gets a ticket for a prize drawing.

For the first day of school, Brummer dressed up as Supergirl and McKay as a female Captain America. Teachers wore “What is your super power?” T-shirts.

“That was really empowering the kids to say, ‘What is your super power?’ ” she said. “What are you going to bring to Johnson this year that’s really going to help our school be successful?”

At the Blue Ribbon celebration, all students wore T-shirts with the message, “You’re following a superhero” Imprinted on the back.

“I’ve never seen so many superheroes,” Education Commissioner Terry Holliday told them. “Every day when you come to school you are giving a superhero effort to get smarter and help your teachers. I’m so proud of you guys.”

This Blue Ribbon award was not Johnson’s first; the school also received the honor in 1992. Fort Thomas’ Highlands High School was a Blue Ribbon school in 2007, its Ruth Moyer Elementary received the award in 2009, and its Woodfill Elementary won the award in 2011.

“The way we come together around our children and education is unprecedented,” said Superintendent Gene Kirchner. “I’m my 32 years in this business I’ve seen a lot and been a lot of places but I’ve never seen anything like Fort Thomas, it’s truly special.”


Tonya Brummer