By Brenna R. Kelly
Being named a 2016 Blue Ribbon School was not a surprise to teachers at Gray Middle School – it was a validation.
“You feel like you finally got acknowledged for something you’ve been doing right for a long time,” said 8th-grade math teacher Pam Ollier, who has taught at the Boone County school for 22 years. “We’ve done some really good things here. It’s a great place to teach.”
Gray Middle was one of five Kentucky public schools to receive the honor from the U.S. Department of Education in 2016 based on student achievement and other research-based indicators of quality. The school is one of just seven Kentucky middle schools to be awarded the Blue Ribbon in the program’s 34-year history.
“We have high expectations and we really focus on the academics,” said Principal Todd Novak, who is in his fifth year as principal. “I inherited a very successful school. We have hard working students, a very supportive community and our teachers, they are great.”
For many of the 1,069 Gray students, this the second time one of their schools has received a Blue Ribbon. Shirley Mann Elementary, which feeds Gray, received the honor in 2013.
For the past three years, Gray has been a School of Distinction under the state’s Unbridled Learning accountability system with a total score of 82.9 for the 2015-16 school year, an increase of 10.4 points over the past four years.
“I wish I could say I’ve done something miraculous during my five years here,” Novak said. “We’ve tweaked some things here and there and made some changes, but all in all I really owe it to the staff and the strong community.”
The school’s students come from southern and western Boone County, which includes both suburban and rural communities in the third fastest-growing county in the state. Though it’s just 18 miles south of Cincinnati, “it still has a small town feel here,” Ollier said.
“You see parents at the grocery store, you see parents out everywhere,” she said. “Everybody comes to the high school football games, you see everybody there.”
And it’s a community that values education, Gray teachers said.
On a recent afternoon, 7th-grade English/language arts teacher Andrew Jones met with a parent who wanted to see how her son was adjusting after recently transferring to the school. It’s just one example of how engaged Gray parents are in their children’s education, he said.
“The parents are involved here and the students are motivated to learn,” he said. There are few behavior problems at the school and most are dealt with quickly by contacting students’ parents, he said.
“You can see the positive benefits for the kids because of the teamwork and partnership between the community and the school,” Jones said.
Novak said that community was part of what drew him to the school after seven years as assistant principal at Ryle High School, which is on the same campus.
“I really felt comfortable in the community so when the position opened up, I thought, I’ll give this a shot,” Novak said. He also thought his high school experience would be an asset at a middle school because he has seen what it takes to succeed in high school.
That’s one reason why Gray Middle students are exposed to many disciplines, Novak said.
In addition to English, mathematics, science and social studies, all Gray students take STEM-based Project Lead the Way classes, band, choir, art, physical education and Spanish.
“That way maybe when you get into high school you’ve got a better idea of which electives you want to take,” he said.
The Project Lead the Way classes expose students to three different STEM-related fields. Sixth-graders take a course in computer-aided design, the 7th-graders learn about energy and the environment and 8th-graders learn about medical science by solving a pretend murder using DNA, said Laura Faulkner, who has been teaching the classes since they began three years ago.
“I like being the facilitator in Project Lead the Way because it’s a student-led course. I just guide them and make sure they are on the right path,” she said. “It’s all inquiry, they are learning as they go.”
For a lesson on alternative energy sources, 7th-graders had to research an alternative energy source, create a model and then present the information to the class.
“It also works on their 21st century skills, because they actually have to present, they have to know it to where they can give it back to their classmates,” she said. “They get points deducted if they just read it off their display.”
The Project Lead the Way classes are part of the school’s unified arts program, which includes career classes, physical education and health, fine arts, world language, band, choir and drama.
Those unified arts classes are seven-weeks each so that all students can benefit, with some specialties offering a full-year option, Novak said
“Students who never dreamt of performing in front of their peers are excelling at theatric monologues and students who never knew about the computer-aided manipulation of photographs or creating something with a 3D printer are becoming experts in these areas,” he said.
Students also can take a full year of Spanish I – which would count toward a high school credit – chorus or band. The school’s band program includes an advanced band that works with Ryle High School to better prepare students for the high school band. In 2016, Gray Band Director Bill Kidwell received a Golden Apple award from the Northern Kentucky Education Council for his work.
The balance of rigorous instruction in the core subjects of mathematics, science, social studies and language arts and the robust arts program is one of the reasons for the school’s success, Novak said.
“Students have an opportunity to experience a multitude of subject areas and develop their brains holistically,” he said.
Jones believes Gray’s success is also due to Novak’s leadership and his insistence on perpetuating a positive attitude in both the students and the staff
“When you hear it every day, to be positive, to remind your students and your co-workers of something good that they’ve done, it’s contagious,” Jones said.
Jones, who began his teaching career at the school, hopes to stay at Gray until he retires.
“It’s just an awesome place to be,” he said. “Everyone works with the same goal in mind, how are we going help these kids.”
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