By Brenna R. Kelly
Zach Ashley had been principal at Beechwood Elementary just three months when he learned his school had won a 2015 National Blue Ribbon award.
But he was not surprised.
The kindergarten through 6th-grade school in the small Beechwood Independent district in Kenton County has long been recognized as one of the top-performing schools in the state.
It was that tradition of excellence that drew Ashley to the job and motivates him each day as he leads the nearly 700-student school.
“At Beechwood, I have the ability to really, really focus on academic success and instruction,” he said, “all of the reasons that I went to school and all the reasons that I wanted to be in education.”
Beechwood was one for four public schools in Kentucky to be named a 2015 National Blue Ribbon school by the U.S. Department of Education. Federal education officials declared the school an Exemplary High-Performing School based on student achievement and several other research-based indicators of quality.
Beechwood has ranked in the 99th percentile of Kentucky schools for the past three years in the state’s Unbridled Learning accountability system. In the 2014-15 school year students performed above the state average in all K-Prep tested subjects, but they performed particularly well in social studies with 85.9 percent of the school’s students rating at the proficient or distinguished level; the state average was 60.6 percent.
The credit for the academic success, Ashley believes, belongs to the students, teachers, parents and Fort Mitchell community.
“The families here are amazing,” he said. “We open our doors and there are hundreds of parents.”
Holiday parties routinely bring more than 300 parents to the school to help teachers, he said. An education foundation regularly buys technology for the school, helps with the costs of renovations and makes sure all students can attend field trips.
In the 2015 Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning (TELL) Survey, 97 percent of the Beechwood Elementary teachers who responded said that the community support they receive contributes to student success. Across the state, 88 percent of elementary school teachers gave that response.
While Beechwood Independent’s high school received the Blue Ribbon award in 2013, this was the first Blue Ribbon award for the elementary school.
In November, Ashley, Superintendent Mike Stacy and 1st-grade teacher Cathy Wolff traveled to Washington, D.C., to receive the award.
“Going to represent the school to get the Blue Ribbon award was the highlight of my teaching career,” said Wolff, who was nominated by her fellow teachers to attend the ceremony. “It was amazing to go and see D.C. and to see how the presentation was and how important the award was and how special. It was just awesome.”
Wolff has taught at Beechwood for 24 years, long enough to see some of her former students’ children become her students.
“I love it,” she said. “I think life is all about family and friends and teaching brings a lot more family and friends. I’ve taught in other states and other schools and this by far my favorite.”
Tradition is important at Beechwood, which began as a two-room schoolhouse in 1860, but that doesn’t mean the school forsakes innovation for the status quo. Technology is integral in the school, with mini iPads, laptops and smart tables in many classrooms. Students also have access to two computer labs and there are computers in every classroom.
In its Blue Ribbon application, the school highlighted its 6th-grade math program, Connected Math, which allows students to enter 7th grade with an Algebra I credit. The school also noted that math and English/language arts are embedded into its science curriculum, which uses a state of the art science laboratory.
Beechwood also highlighted its district’s tradition of music education. The high school’s marching band won its seventh state championship this school year. At the elementary school, all 5th-grade students participate in band; 6th-grade band class is an elective with more than half of the students choosing to continue.
Fourth-grade students participate in “Professionals: Gentleman in Ties & Ladies in Pearls,”a program designed to allow students to see themselves as professionals. Students earn points for academic and social performance and earn the privilege of wearing donated ties or pearls.
Like the students, teachers at Beechwood continue their education through professional learning, such as Megabyte Mondays, where teachers learn from their colleagues about how to implement new technology.
Beechwood’s academic achievement has made it a sought-after school district in northern Kentucky. Parents who live outside the district often inquire about paying the more than $4,000 in tuition to send their children to the school, Ashley said.
“We have tuition inquiries daily in the summer,” he said.
In addition to the academics, people want to be part of a small district, Ashley said.
“With just 1,300 in the whole district,” he said, “It’s really a family. We have a good family atmosphere.”
In addition to Ashley, Beechwood has added several new family members. Superintendent Mike Stacy came to Beechwood this year from Woodford County and Ben Lusk is in his first year as curriculum director. At the high school, Principal Alissa Ayres in her second year and Assistant Principal Justin Kaiser is in his first year.
“People recognize the tradition that exists at Beechwood,” Ashley said, “it’s 150-plus years of success, so this Blue Ribbon award was kind of indicative of the fact that even though we’ve undergone so much change on an administrative level, this place is still successful. It has been for a long time and it will be for a long time after us. We are small pieces in the puzzle.”
Zach Ashley Zach.Ashley@Beechwood.kyschools.us