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 East Elementary School in the Sheldon Community School District. We asked Principal Jason Groendyke, who has been the principal for the last 10 years, his thoughts on becoming a Blue Ribbon School.

School: East Elementary, Sheldon Community School District
Student population: 462
Percent of students in lower socio-economic status: 45%
Town: Sheldon

Were you surprised to be named a Blue Ribbon School? 
I was very surprised to be named a Blue Ribbon School, it is a great recognition and very deserving for the students and staff at East Elementary. Throughout my time as the principal, we have put in a lot of hard work and I knew that we were consistently performing well over the past five years, but I never would have thought we would receive this recognition. 

It is very humbling and rewarding for everyone who has played an essential role in the lives of our students. I have a great staff at East Elementary that invests so much into our students and it is amazing to see this hard work come to fruition.

Is your school doing something cutting edge? What is it?
East Elementary has implemented our Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) framework for grades K-4. We have implemented this framework with fidelity and it has been our focal point for the past eight years. This framework guides our teachers through the necessary support for the students in their classrooms. It begins with screening our students with a number of assessments and universal screeners. Once these are completed, we conduct our data analysis on our students which, in turn, gives the teaching staff direction on the research-based interventions that need to be provided with fidelity to help our students continue closing the achievement gap. To ensure the fidelity component, teachers keep implementation data logs, which are records of minutes spent on interventions with each student.

Our focus is not only on the students who need interventions, but also enrichment for students who are advanced. Teachers administer progress monitoring probes on a weekly basis and collect this data for six weeks. We then conduct another data analysis to determine if the intervention is working or if adjustments are needed. This process continues for the remainder of the school year. While it may seem repetitive, it has been a “game changer” for our students and staff.

What other factors would you say contributed to your school’s success? 
We have several other factors that contribute to the success of our students, which include: Whatever I Need Time (W.I.N), Professional Learning Communities (PLC), Teacher Assistance Team (T.A.T), and Leader in Me.

Collaboration is key for the success of our students and staff. Therefore we have chosen to implement the PLC initiative, which gives teaching staff the opportunity to collaborate with one another about student learning, data and best practices. The focus is centered around the four big questions of PLC, which are:

  • What do we want all students to know and be able to do?
  • How will we know if they learn it?
  • How will we respond when some students do not learn?
  • How will we extend the learning for students who are already proficient?

These questions allow the staff to center their conversations around student data and best practices, which allow teachers to properly place students during W.I.N time where they receive interventions or enrichment. When analyzing intervention data, if students are not making adequate gains, they may be referred on to our Teacher Assistance Team. This process allows for collaboration among teachers from various grade levels and specialty areas to provide guidance with additional interventions needed or determination or referral for special services. The goal is always to provide interventions with fidelity for six weeks, reconvene and analyze the data to determine next steps.

The Leader in Me initiative began three years ago and has had a very positive impact on our students and has allowed them to grow as young leaders. Students have been given opportunities to lead in a variety of ways, which has helped many to become more confident and model their actions from the Leader in Me 7 Habits by Stephen Covey. This has allowed for a significant number of students to “shine” as leaders, such as leading our school assemblies at each grade level, saying the morning announcements, providing building tours for new teachers and a variety of classroom responsibilities.

Describe your philosophy in delivering a quality education to your students.
East Elementary strongly believes that each student is capable of learning and achieving their own personal greatness. Each staff member takes on the attitude that “all means all” and we serve each of these students to the best of our ability.

Students are not “labeled” according to an area of need. We challenge all our students and meet them where they are at. Prior to providing instruction, we understand the importance of establishing relationships – this may be the most important part of the educational process! All staff members firmly believe it is essential to get to know the students as an individual first and then begin the process of teaching and learning. We care deeply for every single student and it is amazing to see what we accomplish simply because the students know we care.

When delivering instruction to our students, we understand there is not a “one size fits all” way of teaching. We use a variety of teaching strategies on a daily basis to help best meet the needs of our students such as: APL, PLC, Leader in Me, technology integration, movement, games, accommodations and modifications as needed and differentiation of instruction. We give our teachers the support and resources they need through current evidence-based curriculum.

All of these areas play a vital role in the success of our students. We care deeply for our students and truly invest in them. We work very hard, but we like to celebrate and play just as much, this leads to so many positive outcomes and success.

What does this honor mean to you, your team and your community?
Personally, I am very proud of my students and staff. This award is truly their award and one that they have earned throughout many years of hard work and dedication, but most important, trusting the processes we have in place at East Elementary.

We have a very caring and dedicated staff that honestly does go above and beyond to reach students and help them succeed and become the best they can be. We believe all students can achieve their own personal greatness and we understand this looks different for each student, but it is this attitude that has shaped us into who we are and why we experience success.

Students understand they are deeply cared for and that we will do whatever it takes to help them grow. That being said, we could not do this without the support of our parents and community. We understand the importance of establishing and maintaining positive relationships between the school, home and community.

East Elementary is truly blessed to have the support of our parents and community. We have many volunteers who help throughout the year, whether it is for field trips, class rewards, guest speakers, or whole school activities their support greatly impacts and contributes to the success of our students. This award is for everyone who has been involved in some capacity at East Elementary, whether it was a big or small contribution they played a role in shaping us into who we are today.

As a community, school, and staff we are thankful and proud of this award and we will continue to grow together and stay committed to providing the best experience for our students, staff and community.