GREEN RIVER — Truman Elementary School in Green River is one of just two schools in Wyoming to receive a national award for excellence in education.
What makes the recognition even more remarkable is the fact that school has the highest percentage (41%) of students receiving free or reduced price lunches in Sweetwater County School District No. 2 as well as the highest percentage (22%) of students on an individualized educational plan.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recognized Truman Elementary on Sept. 26 as one of 362 schools named National Blue Ribbon Schools for 2019. Truman serves students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Greg Figenser was principal when the school was nominated for the award, and David Asselmeier is the current principal. Figenser now serves as curriculum director for Sweetwater No. 2.
U.S. Sen. John Barrasso visited Truman Elementary on Monday to congratulate staff and students. The school also celebrated at an assembly Sept. 26. When former Principal Figenser arrived that day, students flocked to him for hugs, and he led the entire school in celebratory cheers. Students also watched a congratulatory video and received ice cream sandwiches.
"We recognize and honor your important work in preparing students for successful careers and meaningful lives," DeVos said in a video message to the honorees. "As a National Blue Ribbon School, your school demonstrates what is possible when committed educators hold all students and staff to high standards and create vibrant, innovative cultures of teaching and learning."
Principal Asselmeier said the award is a win for the entire Truman community, from students and staff to parents and everyone who labors at the school including paraprofessionals, custodial staff and cafeteria workers.
“It is something we should all be proud of,” he said.
Asselmeier is in his first year as Truman principal after teaching fourth grade for eight years and fifth grade for one year at the school. He served under Figenser and gave him much of the credit for the school’s success leading up to the Blue Ribbons Schools Award.
“He brought stability and focus to our school,” Asselmeier said.
Truman was honored as an “Exemplary High Performing” school. Schools nominated for that award must be in the top 15 percent of all schools in their state when ranked on the performance of students who participated in the most recently administered state assessments in reading (or English language arts) and mathematics, or a composite index that includes these results and may also include assessment results in other subject areas and/or student performance measures such as attendance.
Public schools must be nominated by the chief school cfficer in each state, according to the Blue Ribbon Schools website. The Department of Education then invites nominated schools to submit applications for recognition as a National Blue Ribbon School. Truman’s application referred to the “students first” philosophy that it has adopted during the past five years.
A big part of the “students first” philosophy is the belief that every staff member is responsible for every student, according to Truman’s application. First-grade teachers are responsible for fifth-grade students. The speech language therapist is responsible for all students, not just those on her caseload. Another aspect of the philosophy is not labeling students—they are no longer title students or special education students; they are Truman students.
“Students first” includes caring for all aspects of their lives, the application said. If children are hungry or sad, staff realizes that they will struggle to learn.
Systematic changes in the school’s Title 1, special education and reading programs have changed Truman’s approach to instruction. Barriers were removed, allowing grade level instruction for all students as well as targeted small group reading interventions. Special education students have been integrated into the regular classroom as much as possible. Most special education students receive whole group, grade-level instruction in the regular education classroom, getting support from either a special education teacher or paraprofessional. In many regular classes, the regular instructor and special education professional co-teach.
Becoming a school-wide Title 1 school has allowed Title staff to work with all students and has helped staff the school-wide Leveled Literacy Intervention (LLI) program, an intensive, small-group, supplementary literacy reading and writing intervention for students. All Truman students now have the opportunity to participate in an LLI group, and staff believes this has been a key driver to increased test scores.
The final positive change referred to in Truman’s application was the integration of the school’s response to intervention/building intervention team with it building-wide professional learning communities (PLCs). Response to Intervention (RTI) is a multi-tier approach to the early identification and support of students with learning and behavior needs. At Truman, RTI starts at the classroom level, then moves to the PLC level and then the building level. At each level, staff focuses on responding to student needs, the creative use of staff and small groups, and the involvement of other support areas such as counseling.
“Our focus on response to intervention has decreased the number of students placed on an IEP and improved success rates for these struggling students,” the application said.
Truman’s history prior to 2014 had been a bit tumultuous with five different principals in a 10-year span. The lack of stable leadership made it hard for staff to work toward a sustained vision, according to the application. During its decade of instability, Truman typically scored at the bottom of the district and the lower part of Wyoming on state assessments. In Wyoming, there are four levels of meeting expectations: not meeting, partially meeting, meeting, and exceeding. According to the state school performance report, Truman was partially meeting state expectations in 2013-14.
During the 2014-15 school year, Truman hired Figenser. After that, both new and veteran staff worked together to be part of the change movement that positively impacted every area of the school, the application said. In the next four school performance reports, Truman exceeded expectations three times and met expectations one time. In the specific areas of equity, academics, and growth, the school has not had any ratings below meeting expectations during the past four years.
Truman Elementary is now the school parents want their children to attend, according to the application. Truman was projected to be under 300 students to begin the 2018-19 school year, but increased voluntary transfer requests boosted the student population to more than 350 students.
BLUE RIBBON AWARD
Truman Elementary will be honored Nov. 14-15 at the annual National Blue Ribbon Schools awards ceremony in Washington, D.C. Those planning to attend include Figenser, Asselmeier, a teacher from Truman and a representative from Sweetwater No. 2. At the ceremony, each school will receives a plaque and flag to signify its exemplary status.
Now in its 37th year, the National Blue Ribbon Schools program has recognized more than 9,000 schools. Up to 420 schools may be nominated each year, but schools are only allowed to be nominated once every five years.