From left, Kenai Peninsula Borough School District superintendant Donna Peterson, McNeil Canyon Principal Pete Swanson, Ken Meyer, deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Deaprtment of Education and District Board of Education President Deb Germano pose Thursday at McNeil Canyon School.
Hours after being one of three schools in the state and approximately 250 nationwide to be named a No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon School, McNeil Canyon School Principal Pete Swanson spoke with pride about what he said is a community accomplishment.
McNeil Canyon has always had high test scores and was nominated by the state education department for the award because it was in the top 10 percent on state tests, Swanson said.
The reason those test scores are high is because the entire community rallies around the school, Swanson said.
"It's one of the few places I have worked that really puts children first," he said. "It boils down to the fact that everybody out there feels that they are a part of it, even if folks don't have students here anymore."
Look around the school and you will see evidence of that community commitment. Declining enrollment districtwide has had an impact at schools like McNeil Canyon, where one family's departure can mean one less teacher in a classroom. But when music, art, physical education and library programs had to be cut, community members stepped in, helping bridge the gaps and provide educational opportunities for their community's children
"We know from brain research that students need the opportunity to make connections outside the basic three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic)," Swanson said, adding that those programs have a profound impact on a student's success.
Ken Meyer of the U.S. Department of Education visited the school last week for the award ceremony and said McNeil Canyon and other schools on the Kenai Peninsula are an example of the level of achievement rural schools can reach.
"It was so evident there in Homer that all of the elements for success are in place including leadership from the top down -- from the superintendent to the principal to the administration to the staff," Meyer said. "I've traveled all over the country and in schools like McNeil you walk in and you just know something is happening. You can literally feel it."
The Blue Ribbon School title is awarded to schools based on one of three criteria: the school has at least 40 percent of its students from disadvantaged backgrounds and dramatically improve student performance on state tests; the school's students, regardless of background, achieve in the top 10 percent on state tests; or private schools achieve in the top 10 percent in the nation.
While the Blue Ribbon School award program has been around longer than the No Child Left Behind program, it was incorporated into the national education plan in recent years.
The school had to submit test score information from the past five years, a task that the entire staff pitched in to help with, Swanson said.
"Just the whole process of being nominated and working together as a staff was invigorating," he said.
Yet receiving the award wasn't without its irony, because programs that educators say contribute to the school's high test scores have continued only because of parent volunteers in some cases. While changes in programs at McNeil Canyon cannot be directly attributed to the nationally controversial No Child Left Behind Act, Swanson said the act has resulted in a "paradigm shift" for educators. No Child Left Behind sets strict guidelines for school improvement in test scores overall as well as in a multitude of subgroups and has turned educators' focus to reading, writing and math.
Test scores and attendance on test day have huge implications for schools. A few students having an off day could result in mandated changes in the way certain pools of money, especially federal Title I funds for tutoring, are spent.
Meyer said while the emphasis of No Child Left Behind is the basics -- reading, math and science -- there is no reason other curricular aspects of the school should be ignored.
"The notion that this takes away from some of these other areas is contradicted right there in Homer," Meyer said.
Swanson said providing programs that made it an award-winning school continues to get more and more difficult.
This year, Swanson has had to take over a half-time position as a teacher. If the school lost any more staff, it would take its toll on the programs the school would be able to offer, he said. Swanson said one of the biggest complaints educators have with No Child Left Behind requirements hinges on the expectation that every child will be 100 percent proficient in state standards by 2012.
"That's a Lake Wobegon kind of thing," Swanson said, referring to the National Public Radio program about a utopian fictional community where "all the children are above-average."
McNeil Canyon School will continue to meet current federal testing standards based on its current level of student achievement until 2010, if it is able to keep doing what it has been doing, Swanson said. After 2010, the federal program's standards would rise above the school's current achievement in test scores.
Still, the possibility that in the next decade the school could not only not be award winning but might not even be in compliance with federal standards doesn't sway the way the school's educators do their job.
"That's not the thing that drives us out here," he said. "We are not a school that is bound up in our test scores, though we are proud of them.
"What I'm concerned about is that these students are in an environment that they want to be in, that nothing gets in the way of their learning, nothing I have control over, anyway."
Despite concerns about the federal program, the school is proud of its accomplishment in being named one of the top schools in the nation, Swanson said.
"It validates what (the staff members) know they have been doing," he said. "It puts us in with a group of schools across the country that are exceptional schools."
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