Editor’s note: The National Blue Ribbon Schools Program recognizes public and private elementary, middle and high schools based on their overall academic excellence. Every year the U. S. Department of Education seeks out and celebrates great American schools, schools demonstrating that all students can achieve to high levels. The coveted National Blue Ribbon School award affirms the hard work of students, educators, families, and communities in creating safe and welcoming schools where students master challenging and engaging content. Perry Elementary School is one of five Iowa schools named a Blue Ribbon School this fall. We visited with the Perry Elementary team to learn how they have earned this prestigious designation.

The concern about learning loss coming out of the pandemic made the staff at Perry Elementary School laser-focused. They knew they had to remedy it – and remedy it quickly.

Making matters even more challenging was that once students were able to return to the classroom, the class day was shortened by an hour-and-a-half in order to give students who chose to still be online some one-on-one teacher time.

The on-the-fly transformations created an unexpected outcome: The school’s performance actually rose after the pandemic. The school, a part of the Perry Community School District in central Iowa, jumped from being considered an average “acceptable” school in the Iowa School Performance Profiles to “high performing.”

“With the 8 a.m.- to-2 p.m. schedule, our teachers knew they had to focus on teaching the essentials,” said Perry Elementary Principal Ryan Marzen. “We may have to miss some of the rocks, because we knew we had to hit the boulders. In time, we discovered the students had better test scores from the 8 a.m.-to-2 p.m. block. The pandemic made teachers focus on the important stuff to ensure students were learning.”

Just what did they do when classes resumed full time? A better question would be what they didn’t do:

  • They made their professional learning communities (PLCs) more focused and intentional.
  • They had title teachers – teachers who specialize in individualized interventions in courses such as literacy and math – participate in the PLCs.
  • Continued a 30-minute block dedicated to interventions and course enhancements.
  • Adopted an “our students” mentality in which teachers focused on the success of all students, not just those in their own classrooms.
  • They created a stronger alignment between grades, such as what does a preschooler need to know to be successful in kindergarten?

“In our weekly PLCs, we not only disaggregate data, but we talk about how they need to adjust what they are doing to teach the kids,” Marzen said. “We talk about what is working and what is not. We pick each others’ brains when we see something is going well.”

The PLCs re-examined their approach to teaching the Iowa standards.

“Traditionally, we were going to teach everything in the core,” Marzen said. “But as opposed to spending a week on each standard, we would consider which standards are more essential and perhaps spend three weeks on one thing and less time on others.”

Morgan Rinker, the associate principal of the school, said the PLCs started inviting the title teachers to the meetings.

“Now title teachers are a part of the PLCs and if there is something they are working on and may be struggling with, and they are trying to figure out why the data is not looking the way they want it to, the title teachers have been a great help,” she said. “The title teachers will say things like, ‘have you tried this?’ By doing this, they are able to effectively tackle problems that crop up.”

Rinker said that, as a result, the PLCs have become much more intentional.

“For instance, we focused on preschool to make sure what is being taught aligns with kindergarten, and that kindergarten aligns with first grade,” she said. “We meet with each grade level and talk about what we can work on and enhance. We have adopted the attitude that ‘these are all of our students, how can we help all of our students? How can we, as a team, work together and shift our students around to best meet each student’s needs? Who is going to teach who?’”

Marzen said they revisited how interventions were conducted in the school. 

“Interventions can have a stigma attached to it,” he said. “An intervention is when we intervene with their general education time, so why not also make sure it could be an enhancement to their education?”

For example, a group of first graders may be proficient in counting up to 120. As such, they might be assigned to a particular teacher who will challenge them to learn how to count to 1,000 – an enhancement. Meanwhile, another group who can’t count up to 120 will be assigned another teacher to work on becoming proficient.

“Why not challenge the higher performers?” Marzen said. “It’s far better than just saying the number 120 is the goal for all.”

The PLCs became much more attuned to the data they were receiving from assessments.

“Our thinking changed from looking at the data to actively seeking solutions,” Marzen said. “It’s a team approach.”

“The powerful thing with a PLC is that you can examine how you are instructing and whether you need to change your instruction. To do this, teachers need to allow themselves to be vulnerable. If we don’t like the data, why wouldn’t we change our approach?”

The PLCs also determined that if a student was receiving interventions at the end of a school year, chances are good he or she would need more interventions in the fall.

“So we determine the need for a student’s support immediately when they come back,” Marzen said. “Why wait on providing the support they need?”

The Perry principal also credits the school’s computer science program for improving education outcomes. A full 20 percent of the school’s teachers have computer science endorsements.

“One thing about computer science is that it teaches problem-solving skills,” he said. “Kids learn how to fail but want to try it again. It teaches kids perseverance. It’s OK if you code this wrong. If a kid fails in math, they may give up. Computer science teaches kids that if they come across something they don’t know, they use their problem-solving skills to find the answer. They become more complex thinkers.”

With this newfound success, it would be easy for the Perry team to rest on their laurels. But that's not how they roll.

“This fall, we are changing our literacy approach in K-2,” Marzen said. “We are challenging ourselves about what we think about literacy with the science of reading.”

Working with the University of Florida Literacy Institute (UFLI), the focus will be on phonics and literacy instruction in grades kindergarten through second grade.

“It will challenge how we teach traditionally,” he said. “Before, a strategy would be relying on visuals when teaching kids how to read. There’s a problem with that. Let’s assume you show a child a picture of a glass, but the child may look at it as a cup. They are not decoding the word, which is essential to learning how to read. They are just using background experience to arrive at ‘cup.’”

Reflecting on past successes only motivates the Perry team to push harder.

“It would be easy to say, ‘hey, let’s not change a thing,’” Marzen said. “But that’s not an option for us.”

Check out this school’s successful approach to teaching literacy.