By Brenna R. Kelly
Dawn Laber’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing since late September.
“People call me all the time asking, ‘Can we come watch, can we come observe?’” said Laber, principal of Ruth Moyer Elementary.
They all want to see what the Fort Thomas Independent school is doing that helped it become a 2016 National Blue Ribbon School and fueled a nearly 15-point rise in this year’s state accountability system.
“I can’t give them a magic curriculum, because it’s really the whole picture,” Laber said. “It’s the parents, the teachers, the students and the district-level administration all working together for a common goal. That’s the only way it will happen.”
Laber, who is in her second year as principal, encourages the callers to come see her teachers and students in action. What they will find, she said, is simply good teaching.
“It’s best practices every day, all day,” Laber said. “You don’t see teachers sitting down, ever. They are in front, they are working with the students.”
Moyer, in the heart of Fort Thomas in Campbell County, was one of five Kentucky public schools to win the 2016 Blue Ribbon honor. The school last won the award in 2009. In 2014, Fort Thomas’ Johnson Elementary received the Blue Ribbon and Woodfill Elementary received the award in 2011.
The Fort Thomas community places a high value on academics, Laber said. The schools benefit from involved parents with high expectations. Students here don’t question whether they will go to college, but where.
“It’s a very special place, it’s hard to explain,” said Laber, who grew up in Fort Thomas. “It’s not a culture of helicopter parents who want to be critical. They believe in us, they believe in what we are doing, they believe in our culture.”
Moyer has long been a high-performing school. For the past four years it has ranked in the 99th percentile in Kentucky’s Unbridled Learning accountability system.
But this past school year, as Laber was in her first year as principal, the school began a major renovation and construction project. About a month before K-PREP testing, the back of the 1930s building was removed to make way for a 43,000 square-foot addition. Kindergarten through 2nd grade remained in the existing building, while grades 3, 4 and 5 moved to portable classrooms behind the school.
In both locations students could hear the banging and drilling. Laber worried it would affect students’ performance on the state assessments. It didn’t.
In the 2015-16 school year, the percent of students scoring proficient or distinguished in reading, math and social studies increased. However, the percent of students scoring proficient or distinguished in writing and language mechanics fell. The school’s overall score increased 14.9 points.
And so Laber’s phone just keeps ringing.
“I just had somebody call and ask what we do for K-PREP prep,” she said. “And my answer is nothing.”
The students don’t drill or take practice tests in the weeks before the test.
“It’s business as usual. We do well every day, so we’ll do well on the test,” she said.
In fact, Laber tells students before the test that she doesn’t care how they score.
“I tell them, ‘I only care that you improve from last year,’” Laber said. And when the test results come back, students aren’t recognized based on their performance category.
“We don’t put anything out that says these are my proficient stars, these are my distinguished stars,” she said. “We put out stars for growth.”
Every teachers’ goal is student growth, she said. And the teachers have the freedom to figure out how to get there.
Fifth-grade teacher Pam Brenner, who has been at Moyer for 26 years, appreciates that autonomy.
“I’m treated like a professional. I get to make the judgment for my kids, where they are at and what they need,” she said. “I can be the practitioner that I need to be in the classroom.”
Because Brenner teaches both reading and mathematics – with students only switching rooms for science, social studies and specials – she can spend two hours on a difficult math concept if needed.
“You can’t do that when you are constantly switching classes,” she said.
In Beckie McGraw’s 3rd-grade classroom, students recently were practicing their cursive letter Es.
“The kids just love cursive. It’s almost like a rite of passage here,” she said. “When they write in their journals at the beginning of the year about what they looking forward to in 3rd grade, cursive always comes up.”
McGraw, who has been at Moyer for 22 years, said she feels lucky to teach in a community that values education.
“We like to call the parents our secret weapon,” she said. “These kids come to school ready to learn and they understand their role in the learning process. We are very fortunate.”
Tenures like Brenner’s and McGraw’s are not usual at Moyer.
When Kelsey Wind began teaching at the school she attended as a child, most her teachers were still there.
“I’ve had to learn to call them by their first names,” said Wind, who has been teaching 1st grade at the school for five years.
One of the best things about teaching at Moyer is the support of the administration and the community, she said.
“Anything I need I know I don’t have to ask too hard for,” she said. “Here, if I need something I know that somebody’s always got my back.”
Teachers can apply for grants from the Parent Teacher Organization and the Fort Thomas Education Foundation. The PTO recently gave the schools more than $30,000 for accessories for the district-purchased iPads that each student received this year, Laber said.
The teachers and students have embraced the technology, which allows them to use apps to allow parents to see what their children are learning each day and to connect the school community.
The schools is also working to align the curriculum with the technology, using the Substitution Augmentation Modification Redefinition (SAMR) model designed to help teachers and students move from using the iPad in place of paper to using it to teach and learn in ways that would not be possible without the technology.
Students recently used the iPads to create videos as part of the school’s Blue Ribbon celebration. In the video the students’ answer the question, “What makes Moyer great?”
“Teachers and staff are always there for students when they need help,” a student in the video says, “They make learning fun and make students feel comfortable. They are more than teachers, they are friends and family.”
In addition to the iPads, Moyer has made other changes this year to keep the school moving forward, Laber said. Teachers now have common planning periods that allow them to collaborate. The change was suggested by AdvancED evaluators as the school was undergoing accreditation.
The school also now has its own art, music and Spanish teachers. Previously, all three Fort Thomas elementary schools shared the same teachers. The change was another AdvancED recommendation.
While always striving for improvement, the school won’t go chasing the latest education fad, Laber said.
“We don’t do a lot of programs; we don’t do a lot of testing,” she said. “We do what we do and we do it well.”
So the next time Laber’s phone rings, she’ll tell the caller:
“Come see whatever you want to see,” Laber said. “We love visitors.”
MORE INFO …
Dawn Laber Dawn.Laber@fthomas.kyschools.us
Pam Brenner Pam.Brenner@ftthomas.kyschools.us
Beckie McGraw Beckie.McGraw@fthomas.kyschools.us
Kelsey Wind Kelsey.Wind@ftthomas.kyschools.us
Substitution Augmentation Modification Redefinition