Middle school to be recognized as finalist for 'change awards'

May 30, 2011

Martinsville Bulletin

Martinsville Middle School will be recognized July 11 at a ceremony with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in New York City, along with 13 other finalists for the Panasonic National School Change Awards and the six award winners.

The middle school learned earlier this month that it was a finalist for the award, which honors school improvement.

Juan Fonseca, deputy director of the Panasonic awards and National Principals Leadership Institute, called the awards program “a rigorous process. It’s very, very close and very, very competitive.”

Martinsville Middle School’s selection as a finalist “is an indication that they have done a marvelous job of improving that school and serving the community,” Fonseca said. “It says a lot for the school, even if the school did not win the award.”

He added that some of the winning schools this year and in the past have been nominated more than once before being honored among the top six.

The panel of judges consists of people from various sectors, he said, including representatives from the corporate world as well as principals, superintendents and education experts. Six screeners review the applicants first and grade them on 16 criteria of improvement before the final judging by a panel of 10-12 people.

Fonseca said there was “tremendous discussion” over the finalists. Among other requirements, he said, schools must show the change “was a group effort” by everyone in the school.

MMS Co-principal Cynthia Tarpley said the middle school’s improvements were made possible by many people, including parents, central office staff, community, mentors, volunteers, staff and students.

The award application process required an essay of at least 10 single-spaced pages, along with test scores for the past five years, student and staff attendance, news clippings and other supporting documents.

Evidence cited in the nomination included large increases in the percentage of students passing the state Standards of Learning exams, jumping from 53 percent passing math in 2005-06 to 85 percent in 2009-10. These passing rates improved even with more middle school students enrolled in advanced math courses, such as Algebra I, geometry and even Algebra II. Numbers of students taking these courses increased from 51 in 2006-07 to 232 in 2009-10.

Between 2005-06 and 2009-10, SOL test performance increased from 74 percent to 90 percent passing in English, from 59 percent to 82 percent in history, and from 79 percent to 87 percent in science.

In addition to test scores, the school had to show evidence of narrowing achievement gaps, changes in instructional practices and school culture and other deep, systemic changes.

“We are especially proud of the closing of the achievement gap between subgroups,” said Co-principal Zeb Talley, noting that there had been double-digit gains in passing rates in some areas. “Economic status and ethnicity are no longer barriers to academic success.”

“I believe one of the changes that made a huge difference in student achievement was establishing and communicating high expectations and providing the support to meet those expectations,” Tarpley said.

Students are expected to score 80 percent or better on assessments. Teachers and administrators use the student testing data to identify weak spots and areas of the curriculum that need to be emphasized. For students who need extra help, tutoring and remediation are offered before, during and after school.

Meanwhile, students are allowed to challenge themselves with open enrollment in advanced classes, such as the pre-Advanced Placement program that started this school year to provide a rigorous foundation for high school. Students have access to other unique academic programs at Martinsville Middle School, including the NASA Science, Engineering, Math and Aerospace Academy and competitive robotics.

Other initiatives contributing to school improvement were positive behavior reinforcement, a focus on better home-school relations and building character.

“We refused to let any student fail or fall through the cracks,” Talley said.


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