By Mike Marsee
It doesn’t take long to get from one end of Johnson Elementary School to the other. It doesn’t take much longer to see that there’s a great deal going on between those walls.
One of the smallest schools in a large district has proved itself capable of doing big things, in part because the teachers at the Laurel County school know their students – and each other – well, and work together to help their students succeed.
“It’s a close-knit group of staff members,” library media specialist Beth White said. “We’re close to the students, to their parents, to the community. Everybody works together to make sure that everybody’s having success.”
Their efforts have been validated by the U.S. Department of Education, which named the school a 2016 National Blue Ribbon School.
“I think it’s a hidden jewel in the county,” said 2nd-grade teacher Cindy Storm, who is in her 18th year at Johnson Elementary. The elementary was named a Distinguished School in 2014 and both a School of Distinction and a High Progressing School in 2015 by the Kentucky Department of Education based on students’ performance in the Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress (K-PREP) Test.
Johnson Elementary, with fewer than 300 students and about 25 teachers and staff members, is a rural school in which 62 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. It is also a school where much is expected, and where students have consistently met those expectations.
“It’s high expectations and a focus on increasing student achievement,” Principal Jamie Gilliam said.
Personalized instruction allows students to receive instruction in both large and small groups, and services for specific groups of students range from gifted and talented and Response to Intervention programs to after-school tutoring.
Fourth- and 5th-grade students who are nominated by their teachers and go through an interview process are part of the Core Ambassadors program, in which they mentor younger students and serve in other areas, such as welcoming veterans at the school’s recent Veterans Day program.
“It’s an opportunity for them to participate in multiple leadership roles, and they love it,” Gilliam said.
The Core Ambassadors also produce the school’s popular Wings program, a school news program.
“It gives them a chance to do presentations for the other kids,” said kindergarten teacher Ashley Morgan, who leads the program.
Visual and performing arts education is a daily part of the curriculum, and the school stages several drama productions each year. Students also participate in units on Appalachian and West African culture.
Beyond regular physical education classes, students take part in a fitness day once in each semester, taking on an intense obstacle course, participating in the President’s Challenge and learning about nutrition.
There is daily Spanish instruction by all classroom teachers, and there are after-school learning clubs that include mathematics, reading, and gifted and talented instruction.
Kindergarten teacher Deirdre Mays, who is in her 23rd year at Johnson Elementary and is one of the school’s longest-serving teachers, said the experienced staff isn’t set in its ways.
“We try new things. If something new comes out and we think it works, we work really hard to make it successful,” she said.
The school and the district emphasize reading as part of a districtwide initiative that has been in place for several years. Every elementary school in the county has a two-hour reading block.
“The foundation of everything that we do is reading,” Gilliam said.
Gilliam said the goal of the school’s reading program is that 90 percent of 3rd-grade students be reading on grade level, and Johnson has climbed to 88 percent over the past three years.
“I think the program made our reading scores consistently good through the years,” Storm said. “We have strong readers. We place a big emphasis on whole-group reading, small-group reading and the Accelerated Reader program. Most of the kids in my room spend probably three hours out of the day reading.”
In her library, White makes sure students have access to books they want to read.
“I know what every student of mine needs, what they like, what they’re interested in, and I purchase books that I know my students are interested in,” she said.
First-grade teacher Tammy Marcum said her colleagues, many of whom have been at the school for years, work well together.
“Like any family, you’re going to have differences of opinions on things, but we’re all one group and we work together for the best interest of the kids,” Marcum said. ”We really work to make everything in our school what we want it to be.
“It’s never ‘my kid,’ it’s ‘our kid.’”
Johnson Elementary is Laurel County’s second Blue Ribbon school in as many years. Bush Elementary School, located just six miles away, was named a Blue Ribbon school in 2015.
Gilliam said she is proud not only of the school, but of the entire community. “Their hard work has paid off,” she said.
Gilliam worked at Bush before coming to Johnson in 2015. She had been a student teacher at Johnson years earlier, and now she supervises some of the same teachers who once supervised her.
“I have really had to do very little,” she said. “They were already high performing when I came, so I haven’t had to make many changes.”
The facility itself is a different story, however.
“It’s really amazing to see how much it’s changed since I was here 25 years ago,” said Morgan, who attended Johnson and now teaches in the classroom where her mother previously taught.
Johnson Elementary, the second-smallest school in Laurel County, was built in 1960, but it has been remodeled and expanded to make it a more attractive setting for learning. The additions include a large library and two computer labs. There also is ample outdoor space for a gazebo and a wetland, in addition to a large playground.
Johnson Elementary’s teachers said they love working at their small school and they’re certain their students enter middle school as well-prepared as students from larger schools.
“We should have been a Blue Ribbon school a long time ago,” White said. “We’re just now getting recognized for the hard work that’s been going on for years and years.”
MORE INFO …
Jamie Gilliam firstname.lastname@example.org
Tammy Marcum email@example.com
Deirdre Mays firstname.lastname@example.org
Ashley Morgan email@example.com
Cindy Storm firstname.lastname@example.org
Beth White email@example.com