Paonia Elementary School learned in February that it had received the Governor's Distinguished Improvement Award, based on 2016 school year assessment scores in math, science, and English language arts (SLA). While other schools in the district and across the state also earned the distinction, this was the sixth consecutive year PES has demonstrated "exceptional student growth." PES is also the only Western Slope elementary school to receive the honor each of the six years it has been awarded by the Colorado Department of Education.
Since 2010, the DOE has published an annual School Performance Framework (SPF) for every school in the state. "The SPF is like a school report card that lays out how the school performed on the annual state assessments," explained math and technology teacher, Bob Bushta.
Based on the 2016 framework, PES was one of four schools in the Delta County 50J School District to receive the award. Cedaredge High, Cedaredge Middle and Hotchkiss High schools also were recognized. PES was the only one rated above 90 percent on the 2016 SPF, and the only school in the district to be recognized each year since the award began in 2010.
In addition, for the fourth consecutive year, PES received an overall "A" grade from ColoradoSchoolGrades.com, which ranks the school 30th out of the state's 1,015 elementary schools for school year 2016. "Not only is this the school's highest ranking ever, but it puts PES in the top 3 percent of all elementary schools in the state," said Busta.
In the two years prior, PES received a "B+" grade, said principal Sam Cox. "That says a lot about the quality of education for a small, rural town."
At the March 14 town board meeting, Paonia Mayor Charles Stewart and town trustees recognized students and staff for their continued achievement and presented Cox and the school with a certificate.
Assessment testing begins in third grade, and growth is based on two years of test scores. Last Friday the school awarded students in grades four through six whose test scores reflect high achievement (in the 64th percentile or higher) and growth with custom-engraved Eagle tags. Third graders were invited to see what they can achieve with hard work.
There are two ways to earn tags, said Bushta: Achievement, where students meet or exceed standards, and growth. "We have a laser focus on growth," said Bushta. If students were measured solely on achievement, those who meet expectations on their test scores, but had low growth, could be recognized, while those who partially met or approached expectations, but had high growth, could be largely ignored.
By not recognizing personal growth, students can get the impression "that their accomplishments don't mean as much," said Bushta. "If you focus exclusively on growth from year to year, then achievement takes care of itself."
That kind of growth measure is perhaps the most important, said Cox, and where the majority of Eagle tags are presented. "No matter how you do," said Cox, "as long as you make high growth, you have an opportunity to get a dog tag. Every single student can achieve high growth if they do their absolute best."
In looking at students with high growth (67th percentile or higher), 46 percent of fifth graders experienced high growth in math and 42 percent in ELA; in sixth grade, 30 percent had high growth in math and 36 percent in ELA; and the seventh grade, 57 percent had high growth in math and 71 percent in language arts.
In identifying the reasons for the school's success, Cox listed three parts to the equation: the students, who do the "lion's share of the work," the teachers and staff, and the parents and the community. "All that is crucial to our success."
At PES, more than 95 percent of the teaching staff has more than 10 years of teaching experience, said Cox. Over time they become more effective in their craft. Last fall, second-grade teacher Jodi Simpson was top-six finalist for Colorado Teacher of the Year. The school also offers after-school activities, some offering a healthy snack. They also have a homework club and offer sports including the Girls on the Run.
At the end of Friday's awards presentation, students watched a scene from the movie, "The Bear," in which a bear cub is pursued by a mountain lion. The cub never gives up, and eventually the mountain lion retreats. The cub thinks he scares the mountain lion away, when in fact his mama bear was right behind him. At PES, the cub represents the mama bear, the mountain lion represents hard work, and the mama bear represents the teachers, said Cox. The message to students: Never give up. Never cave in to the mountain lion. "And remember that there's always a mama bear behind you."