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Janesville's Kennedy Elementary School gains national recognition

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
September 17, 2011
— A Janesville public school is celebrating a national award, the result of efforts across the district to improve student achievement, Superintendent Karen Schulte said.

Kennedy Elementary School is one of 305 schools that this week were named Blue Ribbon Schools by the U.S. Department of Education.


Kennedy was cited for its high achievement on state tests even though 49 percent of its students come from low-income families. Nearly 91 percent of students in grades 3-5 scored as “proficient” or “advanced” on state tests they took last fall.


“It came as no surprise for me because the staff at that school, not only the teachers, work together as a very cohesive unit, and I think they figure it out for kids. If kids aren’t learning, they don’t give up. They don’t make excuses. They find a way,” Schulte said.


At the same time, Schulte worries about how Kennedy and other schools will continue their student-achievement efforts in a time of shrinking staffs.


The school board cut 110 positions this year, including elementary librarians, counselors, social workers and learning-support teachers.


“We know we have less support staff. I believe that will affect student achievement. There is research that will support that,” Schulte said.


“If you ask too much of people they’re going to get tired. They’re going to get burned out,” Schulte added.


Asked how they do it, officials say Kennedy constantly analyzes test data, identifies weaknesses and then targets teaching to strengthen those areas or target specific students for extra help. It’s a formula that district leaders, including director of instruction Kim Ehrhardt, are promoting in all the schools, Schulte said.


Also different this year is the fact that Kennedy has a part-time principal. In another money-saving move, the district hired retired principal Mike Kuehne to oversee Kennedy and Harrison schools. Each school has a “building coordinator” as well.


Kennedy’s building coordinator is Allison DeGraaf, who last year was Kennedy’s learning-support teacher. Schulte credits DeGraaf with pushing the school’s data-driven achievement effort.


How the new leadership arrangement will work will be assessed at the end of the year, Schulte said. She said she hopes the changes won’t affect student achievement.


Schulte said Kennedy’s success wasn’t a one-year effort. She credits Neil Bender, Kennedy’s first principal, who retired in 2009, for developing a talented staff. Jay Pica took over in ’09 but left last spring to take a similar job in his hometown.


Kennedy is one of three elementary schools the school board chose to consider for possible closing next year. A study committee recommended that no school be closed, but the school board hasn’t yet made a decision on that issue.


Schulte said she supports the committee recommendation, “so Kennedy can continue the good work that they started.”


Schulte said she and her cabinet will examine Kennedy’s practices to look for things that could be duplicated in other schools.


Schulte noted that four other district schools were recently recognized by the state for similar achievement. She said the district’s Journey to Excellence, a process that came from philanthropist/consultant Quint Studer, is making a difference.


“We have a laser-like focus now on what our mission is,” and a top goal is student achievement, Schulte said.


The process brings awards “because we’re really concentrating on it, and were not getting off track, and Kim Ehrhardt is a master of keeping us focused across the district,” Schulte said.


Only eight Wisconsin schools won the Blue Ribbon this year, including Beloit’s Gaston Elementary.


Winners will receive a plaque and flag signifying their Blue Ribbon status. They will be honored Nov. 14 and 15 in Washington, D.C.


The only other Janesville school to receive this award was St. Paul’s Lutheran, in 1992-93.


Evansville High School was named a Blue Ribbon School in 2006.



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