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.

This year, five Iowa schools have received the Blue Ribbon designation: three elementary schools, a middle school and a high school.

Today we feature Norman Borlaug Elementary School in the Iowa City Community School District. We asked Principal Celeste Shoppa, who has been principal there for 16 years, her thoughts on becoming a Blue Ribbon School.

School: Norman Borlaug Elementary School, Iowa City Community School District
Student population: 420
Percent of students in lower socio-economic status:  40.1%
City: Coralville

Were you surprised to be named a Blue Ribbon School? Why?
We were pleasantly surprised to be nominated as a National Blue Ribbon School. Norman Borlaug Elementary was nominated as an Exemplary High Performing School along with four other outstanding public schools from Iowa. We felt very honored to be recognized.

Is your school doing something cutting edge? What is it?
At Borlaug Elementary, the one strategy that has been most instrumental to our success and excellence is our systematic approach to Professional Learning Communities (PLC). We are organized into meaningful grade-level teams, each led by a team leader. Our instructional design strategist and I attend all PLCs as collaborative and active participants. Each PLC meeting is 50 minutes and scheduled during the school day, so we are guaranteed our time to work in partnership weekly. This allotted time is essential to our work as it benefits our instruction and results in improved student achievement. Through our Professional Learning Communities and the use of our PLC processes, Borlaug Elementary teachers do not leave students’ progress to chance. Instead, we use our reflective practices, collaborative conversations and solution-focused planning to continue our commitment to learners’ growth and achievement. 

What other factors would you say contributed to your school’s success?
Borlaug Elementary School’s vision states, “We will provide all students and staff with a safe, culturally responsive, collaborative and emotionally healthy environment in which to grow.” Our environment is grounded in the Positive Behavior Interventions & Supports (PBIS) framework, in which cultural responsiveness is a core component. One of our staff norms is “We will treat one another with dignity, respect and equity. We will advocate the same for others in the Borlaug community.” Borlaug Elementary ensures a culturally sensitive and welcoming environment for our families in addition to our students and staff. Our efforts include using accessible tools to communicate in families’ home languages, offering opportunities to welcome families into our school and celebrating our school’s diversity through our annual cultural heritage day. Overall, our hope is that all people in our Borlaug community, regardless of role or background, feel that our school is a safe, supportive, inclusive and culturally responsive place of learning.

Describe your philosophy in delivering a quality education to your students.
Our school song starts, “Welcome, welcome to Borlaug School. We hope you like it here. We’re a group of people from many, many countries, cultures, and colors, and we mix well.” Borlaug Elementary has welcomed students and families each school year since August 2012. Our mission ensures all students will become responsible, independent learners capable of making informed decisions in a democratic society as well as in the dynamic global community. We challenge each student with a rigorous and creative curriculum taught by a diverse, professional, caring staff and enriched through the resources and efforts of our families and the entire community. Our vision is to provide all students and staff with a safe, culturally responsive, collaborative and emotionally healthy environment in which to grow, as we celebrate our diversity and inclusiveness in the Borlaug Community.

Our Borlaug staff holds each other accountable through our collective commitments. We treat each other with dignity, respect and equity, and we advocate the same for others. Each colleague communicates in a solution-focused, goal-oriented, strength-based and purpose-driven way. We respect all contributions, both in ideas and time, and we value colleagues’ levels of expertise. We embrace our Borlaug Community with compassion, positivity, kindness and empathy, and we lead by example. We invest in our continuous development through learning, enacting, reflecting and improving. We balance the right to privacy and confidentiality with the right to be advised of significant information. We believe in each other, and we believe in every student!

Our morning routine serves as an example of our character and sets the tone for each day. Staff members greet students outside, at the front door, in the hallways, and as they walk into the classroom daily. Our students comment on how many teachers smile, talk to them, and know their names and interests. Then, classes start with a morning meeting focused on building relationships and developing interpersonal skills. We value these connections, in the morning and throughout each day, as an opportunity to improve overall achievement through student engagement and a positive school climate.

At Borlaug Elementary, we pride ourselves in our systematic approach to data analysis and overall progress. One exemplar element of this work is our student support team (SST). SST follows the framework of Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) and meets weekly to share, discuss and problem solve for our students identified as needing Tier 2 or Tier 3 services and instruction. Prior to each SST meeting, our instructional design strategist (IDS) sorts our academic data by students’ progress monitoring trend lines so we know which students are making accelerated, adequate, limited or no progress in their interventions. The team (composed of our IDS, school counselor, behavioral interventionist, student family advocate, school facilitator, school social worker, academic school consultant and principal) discusses the data to celebrate student achievement and make suggestions for instructional changes when students are not showing growth. Then, the IDS shares notes with general, special education, Title I and English language teachers so they are aware of any adjustments to instruction and are recognized for their unwavering diligence. The SST also reviews behavioral or social/emotional plans and notes students with attendance concerns. The result of SST is a cohesive school approach to data collection and analysis, adding another layer to the work of our professional learning communities (PLCs). We work proactively to meet the needs of our students, leaving nothing to chance. 

We highly value student voices in the decision making at Borlaug. For example, our student council meets twice per month to share input about schoolwide efforts, record our weekly Borlaug Broadcast video series and plan spirit events for the school. Each member of our student council serves as a representative and liaison for their classmates.

Norman Borlaug Elementary School is a school like none other, due to the commitment of our students, families and staff to be a welcoming learning environment for everyone.  We are proud to be the Borlaug Bulldogs where we believe, “Every child, every day, whatever it takes to be Borlaug BEST!” We often speak of our namesake Norman Borlaug, a native Iowan. Historically, people call Borlaug the “father” of the Green Revolution, an effort through which agronomists developed crops which were more resistant to a harsh environment. Borlaug used his talents to save billions of people across the world from starving. One of Borlaug’s favorite quotes was, “Reach for the stars. Although you will never touch them, if you reach hard enough, you will find that you get a little 'star dust' on you in the process.” Likewise, we at Borlaug Elementary School inspire our students to “reach for the stars” and positively impact their community and world around them.

What does this honor mean to you, your team and your community?
As a Borlaug community we are extremely proud of the learning environment we have created. To be recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School for our efforts and accomplishments means a great deal to us.