At Acacia Elementary School, a three-time A+ School of Excellence, the front office is bustling with people dropping off food and rewards for end-of-the-year classroom celebrations, and students walking down a corridor behind it were giving each other high fives for doing great work.
The keys to school’s success are meeting kids where they’re at academically then helping them make strong growth, as well as celebrating their accomplishments whether it’s for great behavior or meeting other goals, said Principal Christine Hollingsworth of the Title I school in North Phoenix that serves about 900 students in Washington Elementary School District.
“I know that we’re doing something right when parents call me and say ‘My child is crying, because they have to stay home because they have strep throat,’” Hollingsworth said. “That’s what it’s all about. That’s what makes us happy. There’s a balance between academics, climate and culture, and the whole child.”
Video by Brooke Razo/Arizona School Boards Association: Acacia Elementary School – Three time A+ School of Excellence
What being an A+ School means
The A+ School of Excellence Award has honored exemplary Arizona public schools since 1983. Schools that apply for the award are evaluated in the areas of student focus and support, school culture, active teaching and learning, curriculum, leadership, community and parent involvement and assessment data.
A+ Schools receive with $500, a banner designating them as an A+ School of Excellence™ winner, and partial scholarships for all staff and their family members at Argosy University Phoenix.
“Every one of these schools has something unique about it,” said Bobbie O’Boyle, executive director of Arizona Educational Foundation.
A+ Schools exceed expectations to meet their students’ needs and achieve success despite the many challenges that education faces statewide, O’Boyle said.
“It’s such an eye-opener for me to see these schools, the communities they serve and how different each one of them is,” O’Boyle said. “Yet, we sometimes have a cookie cutter approach to education and it just doesn’t make sense.”
A+ Schools, like Acacia Elementary School, respond to the needs of their communities and adapt over time to help their students succeed, O’Boyle said.
“Acacia Elementary School in the Washington Elementary School District just received their third A+ Award,” O’Boyle said. “It’s really impressive. They’re doing good stuff.”
AZEdNews Podcast by Brooke Razo/ASBA: Hear what makes Acacia School a three-time A+ School of Excellence
Instruction tailored to students needs
At Acacia School, differentiated learning means “every child is met at their level,” and with intervention, instruction and enrichment each child grows academically, Hollingsworth said.
“We’re a Title I school, 100 percent free- and reduced-lunch, with 12 languages (spoken by students). That being said, we have some of the highest growth of some schools that are not Title I,” Hollingsworth said. “We have higher growth than some of those outside of our district in other areas of the Valley, which is another reason why people will come here, because they see that.”
After general classroom instruction, there is specific small group instruction, there are also interventions for students who need a little more help with a concept and enrichment for students who have mastered a concept, as well as after-school programs to reinforce those concepts through the school’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant, Hollingsworth said.
“They’re getting a true quadruple dose of exactly what you need, and you need, and you need,” Hollingsworth said. “If you’re a third grader and you’re actually capable of fourth grade work, then that’s what you’re going to be doing.”
As Ms. Taylor Trueblood’s kindergarten students colored pictures and wrote, she looked at what they were doing, told them “That’s rock star work,” and put stickers on her students’ papers, which put smiles on their faces.
“Our Title I status is not a roadblock. Oftentimes, people hear Title I and be like ‘Ugh, Title I.’ In fact, it’s not even really part of our culture. We are a Title I school, but you’re not going to hear it mentioned. We don’t ever hear it as ‘Ugh, my child goes to a Title I school.’ It’s like ‘Yeah, we’re a Title I school, and we won a national award, and like we’ve got all this stuff going on, so it does not hinder anything we do.”
Mr. Marc Ciliberti’s fourth-grade students were using information drawn from a card about their career, salary, and family to determine their household budget, including how much they could afford to pay each month for rent, transportation, and food.
“I’m thinking about getting the Dodge Ram truck – the used one,” a boy said as he checked what the monthly payment on it would be and how that work with his budget.
A girl told her group, “I bought groceries, and I still have $200 left.” But another girl said she just had $60 for groceries and was trying to figure out how to feed her two kids more than just ramen.
Celebrating the whole child is another cornerstone of Acacia School’s success, Hollingsworth said.
“There are celebrations going on all over this school all the time,” Hollingsworth said. “If it’s for reading and it’s a Thursday or Friday you’re going to find us in the hallway and the kids are going to be screaming and dancing, because they won points for their reading, they’re getting prizes.”
“We celebrate our PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports) with morning announcements, we’re giving out things for kids who were great role models and examples of the Acacia Way,” Hollingsworth said. “Everyday there’s a celebration here. There’s always happiness so that whole child part is not just the academics, it’s what’s going on with the kiddos all the time. The parents know that, the kids go home and talk about that and the parents are even part of that.”
In Ms. Micheala Gordon’s kindergarten class, students chanted “J, j, jellyfish. Juh, juh, jellyfish. K, k, kangaroo. Kuh, kuh, kangaroo. L, l, lizard. Ll, ll, lizard.”
Then students wrote their first and last names and drew a picture of themselves that they could present their parents later the next day during their graduation.
“Look at our graduation hats,” a student said as she pointed to the construction-paper mortarboards that Ms. Gordon had made for them to wear.
When asked what they liked about school, one kindergarten boy said he loved to play at recess, a girl said she loved to write, and another boy said he liked math.
Acacia Elementary School video: Acacia A+++ Celebration 5/11/18
A+ Award boosts enrollment, engagement
Along with highlighting successful programs, the A+ Award can also boost schools’ enrollment. Acacia’s first A+ Award increased enrollment from 550 students to 700 students, Hollingsworth said.
“Our second A+ Award brought us close to 800 students, and with our third one, we’re a little bit over 900 students,” Hollingsworth said.
About 390 students attend Acacia Elementary School through open enrollment, and that number has remained steady for the past 10 years since that first A+ Award, Hollingsworth said.
“When I ask them why they come to our school, 95 percent of them will cite that they’ve seen that we’re an A+ School of Excellence through the Arizona Educational Foundation,” Hollingsworth said.
Support from parents of students and business community partners was key to the approval of the 2016 bond for Washington Elementary School District, which will help pay for additional classroom space for Acacia School, Hollingsworth said
“The parents that live within our school boundaries are very aware of the challenges that we face. We have an older building. We have several portables that are older,” Hollingsworth said. “Of course, they have buy in, but our open enrollment families have also taken ownership – not even living in this area – by spreading the news that these elections are important. It’s because they are proud of their school.”
Responses from a recent survey sent out to parents, business partners and staff let Hollingsworth know that people understand the culture of the school, and they feel like they’re part of a family.
“In a big world where there’s lots going on, where people may not feel safe, and where public education is in a negative eye, we have people that believe in public education, that feel safe, and that celebrate education,” Hollingsworth said.
Slideshow: Acacia Elementary School wins is third A+ School of Excellence Award by Lisa Irish/AZEdNews