Third-grade teacher Pam Whitfield reads I Survived the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863 a historical fiction book by Lauren Tarshis at Stopher Elementary School (Jefferson County). Photo by Amy Wallot, Jan. 28, 2015

Third-grade teacher Pam Whitfield reads “I Survived the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863” a historical fiction book by Lauren Tarshis at Stopher Elementary School (Jefferson County). Photo by Amy Wallot, Jan. 28, 2015

By Brenna R. Kelly

On a recent morning a retired couple sat in the library of Joseph E. Stopher Elementary reading with students who need a little extra help. Down the hall, three parents worked in a room set aside for the school’s parent/teacher group.

That community and parent involvement is just one example of why the Jefferson County school is a Blue Ribbon School, said Principal Brigitte Owens.

“This is just a great school,” said Owens. “I believe our school was selected because of our consistently high test scores as well as the ability to narrow the achievement gap among certain groups.”

Stopher was one of four public schools in Kentucky to receive the award from the U.S. Department of Education in 2014. The school was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as an Exemplary High-Performing School, based on student achievement and several other research-based indicators of school quality.

When the award was announced last fall, students celebrated by wearing blue and received a schoolwide ice cream party. Recently, Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday toured the school with Owens and Jefferson County Superintendent Donna Hargens to get a first-hand look at what makes the school so special.

Since it opened in the fast-growing suburbs in eastern Jefferson County in 2007, Stopher has ranked as one of the highest-performing elementary schools in the state. For the last three years it has ranked in the 97th percentile or above in the Unbridled Learning College and Career-Readiness for All accountability model.

While most of the school’s students come from the surrounding neighborhoods, about 15 percent are bussed from about a half-hour away, Owens said.  To keep those students from being left out of extracurricular activities the school holds in-school clubs, including band, broadcasting team, art club, student council and Student Technology Leadership Program.

“Another thing that we are proud of is that we actually have two foreign languages, Chinese and Latin,” Owens said.

Stopher is the only public elementary school in the state teaching Latin, she said.

The goal of Chinese classes isn’t just to learn how to communicate in Chinese, but to understand the culture, said Keir Reigel, who has taught Chinese at the school for five years.

One lesson taught students about bartering, the way most business is conducted in China, said Reigel who lived and taught in China.

“That’s a cultural element that we don’t have here, except for garage sales,” she said.

Fifth grade students learned about Chinese architecture then created storefronts in which they sold items to 4th graders with all business being conducted by bartering, she said.

Her goal is for students to leave Stopher able to exchange and obtain simple information in Chinese and able to understand the Chinese culture.

“Dr. Owens is ahead of the curve in wanting to expose these children to such as complicated language and make them feel successful at such an early age,” Reigel said. “That way when they have the opportunity to take it in the future they aren’t going to shy away from it.”

The school also offers a Primary Talent Pool program for high-achieving students designed to encourage critical thinking skills, Owens said.

When Holliday visited in late January, the first graders were investigating patterns in writing using the book “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.”

“We are taking it and looking for a steady beat, so we are also tying the arts into it,” said teacher Lauren Eason.

Students used rhythm sticks, bongos and other instruments to find the beat in the text. After the story, they planned to find the beat in poems, said Eason, who was recently given the Excellence in Classroom and Educational Leadership Award by Jefferson County schools.

“There’s really no curriculum for the primary talent pool,” Owens said, “so this is something that she creates.”

When the school noticed that the primary talent pool classes were not very diverse, they decided to create a “high potential group” to give more students an opportunity.

“Maybe they didn’t do well on the assessment, but you could tell that their wheels are turning,” Owens said. “Some of those kids actually made it into the primary talent pool this year.”

For 4th and 5th graders there’s also an Advanced Program which offers an accelerated curriculum designed to challenge students.

But the school doesn’t only cater to high-achieving students, Owens said. There are two full-time intervention teachers who work with students who need extra help. The school’s Response to Intervention (RtI) program uses data to determine the individualized instruction that students need. The team also works closely with the students’ classroom teachers, Owens said.

The program, which also has a website for students to use at home, was chosen by KDE as an example of exemplary RtI practices.

Because of those efforts the school has received recognition from Jefferson County for scoring at or above state levels in closing the achievement gap, Owens said.

Another intervention pairs students who need help in reading with community volunteers. Rod Kincaid and his wife Carolyn are two of the volunteers who come once a week to help students with their reading skills.

“We enjoy this school so much,” said Carolyn Kincaid, a former teacher. “It’s a wonderful school.”

In the Parent/Teacher room just down the hall, the three mothers working on PTA projects agreed.

Stacy Thurman-Bora moved her daughter to Stopher from a private school after the family moved nearby.

“Not only did I save a lot of money,” said Thurman-Bora, “but I got her into a really good school, one that I feel like is better than the private school she was attending.”

Amy Ballard said she chose Stopher over private school for her three sons because it was new, close to home “and I loved all of the programs that Stopher had to offer, for example Chinese.  I thought, you don’t hear about that very often.”

With her son now in 5th grade, Angela Huffman said she has volunteered a lot of time at the school over the years as a way of giving back.

“Because we don’t pay tuition I pay with my time because I just feel like we have just been so grateful to be here,” Huffman said.  “Parents are actually welcomed in this building every day of the week.”



Brigitte Owens