LENOX — Morris Elementary School has been named a 2016 National Blue Ribbon School, the first time a Berkshire County elementary school has achieved that honor from the U.S. Department of Education.
"That's pretty cool," said schools Superintendent Timothy Lee, a former principal of Morris. "It's really a great honor."
Public schools are nominated for the federal honor by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in one of two categories.
Morris was cited for the fastest progress in the state closing the achievement gap between the overall student body and high-needs, at-risk students, as measured by standardized tests such as MCAS.
Students and staff entering the school on Wednesday morning were greeted by a whiteboard announcement of the citation unveiled by U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr.
"National Blue Ribbon Schools are proof that we can prepare every child for college and meaningful careers, King said in a video message to honorees on Wednesday afternoon. "Your schools are on the cutting edge, pioneering innovative educational practices — professional learning communities, project-based learning, social and emotional learning, positive behavior systems — making you shining examples for your communities, your state and the nation."
Monument Mountain Regional High gained the Blue Ribbon award in 1992, Lee said. The program began in 1982. Morris is one of only three elementary schools in Massachusetts this year to be nationally honored; the others are in Belmont and Quincy.
Morris Principal Carolyn Boyce said she was notified about the nomination early this year and went to work with curriculum educators and specialist teachers in art, music and computer skills. They compiled a 17-page informational document for consideration by the federal education department.
"They wanted to know about our instructional programs, school culture, what makes us successful in closing that achievement gap," Boyce said.
The award is a morale-booster, she said, "at a time when sometimes teachers feel devalued, a lot of blame is put on us for all the world's problems, so to speak. It lets the staff know that they're doing a phenomenal job. I can't say enough about them, they are the real heroes because they are so highly qualified and talented."
"We have great students here," Boyce added, "and this is an opportunity for us to share with the community that we have a really great thing going here. This is a way to send the message out that our little school in Lenox is doing some phenomenal work."
Now in her third year as Morris principal, Boyce also cited the wider community for its support and commitment to "allowing us to have small class sizes, which is really important, and providing us with what we need to be able to do our jobs."
Citing increased resident enrollment as a primary goal, she suggested that "if this can be an attractive accolade that draws young families into the community, purchasing a home, that's ideal."
The nomination for the award followed the state's designation of Morris as a Commended School, one of 49 statewide cited for high achievement and for making strong progress narrowing proficiency gaps during the past five years.
"I was really very pleasantly surprised," said Boyce, noting that the state chose the exemplary achievement gap designation for the school's application to Washington. The other category is based on exceptionally high scores on state tests such as MCAS.
Specifically the school achieved great success with high-needs students who have several risk factors for poor performance on testing, Boyce noted.
"We know that students from low-income families tend to struggle more with testing," she pointed out. Some minority-group students are also identified in the high-risk group, as well as English Language Learners.
"We've been able to provide enough strong, high-quality intervention for those students that they are able to achieve well on state testing," the principal stated.
In fact, she noted, the at-risk students performed better than the others on the MCAS tests. A state performance index for all Morris students was 91, while the high-needs pupils scored 98 out of 100.
Total enrollment at Morris this fall is about 325; about 10 percent are in the high-needs category.
Boyce acknowledged that while standardized test scores are "a feather in our cap, what's most important to focus on is what we're doing to support kids and their learning."
The federally funded Title I program is "pretty robust," she added, allowing the school to employ one certified teacher and three highly trained paraprofessionals who are highly trained to work with students struggling with math or English Language Arts.
"Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, standardized test scores are the way we're measuring success in schools these days," Boyce conceded. "I think it goes much deeper than that, but for us it's a fortunate outcome for the good work we do here in the school."
Lee, Boyce and Maureen Kennedy, the head teacher and physical education instructor at Morris, will attend an awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 8. At a staff meeting, Kennedy was selected by lottery from six teachers who expressed interest in the trip.
The school will receive a Department of Education flag for winning the award, and there are plans for a plaque and a banner to celebrate the achievement.
Earlier this week, the state designated Morris for the fourth consecutive year as a "Level 1" school, in the top 20 percent statewide, for meeting or narrowing achievement-gap goals over time. Lenox Memorial Middle and High School remained at "Level 2," making that the overall ranking for the Lenox district, for the second straight year.
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.
By the numbers ...
Facts and figures for Morris Elementary School in Lenox:
Enrollment: 322 (34 percent school choice)
Faculty (full-time teachers): 40-45
Total staff: 75
Students per class: 16-18 (grades K-2), 18-20 (grades 3-5)
Minority race, ethnicity: 11.8 percent
First Language not English: 6.5 percent
English Language Learner: 5.3 percent
Students with Disabilities: 8.7 percent
High Needs: 28 percent
Economically Disadvantaged: 16.5 percent
At a glance. . .
The 2016 National Blue Ribbon Awards:
• 279 public elementary, middle or high schools and 50 private schools nationally
• Schools are nominated by their state's education department.
• Categories: Exemplary High Performing (among the top schools in the state) or Exemplary Achievement Gap Closing (fastest progress in state)
• Significance: National Blue Ribbon Schools are an inspiration and a model for schools still striving for excellence. The award affirms the hard work of students, educators, families, and communities in creating safe and welcoming schools where students master challenging content.
• History: The program has cited about 8,500 schools since it was launched in 1982.
• Ceremony: On Nov. 7 and 8, the Department of Education will formally recognize the awarded schools at a ceremony in Washington, D.C.