School wins national award

Viers Mill honored by U.S. Dept. of Ed.

Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2005

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Dan Gross⁄The Gazette
Dr. Jerry D. Weast, Montgomery County superintendent of schools, and Dr. J. Stephen O’Brien, director of Recognition Programs in the Office of Communications and Outreach with the U.S. Department of Education, talk with members of the Viers Mill Elementary School safety patrol prior to a Tuesday morning ceremony at which O’Brien presented a national No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon School award to the Silver Spring school.

Viers Mill Elementary School, recognized last year as a county model, has now proven nationally that schools can overcome the challenges of lower-income students and their proficiency in English to achieve academic success.

The U.S. Department of Education has honored Viers Mill with a No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon School of 2005 award, given to schools that make significant progress in closing the ‘‘achievement gap” between well-off and disadvantaged students, or schools at which students achieve at very high levels.

Impressively, Viers Mill qualifies on both counts, said J. Stephen O’Brien, director of Recognition Programs in the Office of Communications and Outreach with the U.S. Department of Education. O’Brien visited the school Tuesday.

‘‘It’s one of the few of the thousands of schools in the country that is as successful,” O’Brien said. ‘‘There is almost no difference between [the test scores of] disadvantaged and middle class students — that’s almost unheard of.”

Viers Mill is a true model, accompanying 295 other schools in the country that received such an award this year, he said.

‘‘You’re going to be famous,” O’Brien told a packed cafeteria of students and teachers, who exploded in applause.

The State Department of Education named Viers Mill one of six Maryland Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence in December 2004 for its sharp improvement on standardized tests. Viers Mill was the only elementary school in the county to earn the award that year and the second Title I school in the county to ever receive the honor.

Of the more than 500 students at Viers Mill, 62 percent qualify for free and reduced-price meals and about 29 percent are in the English for Speakers of Other Languages program.

After years of consistent improvements, Viers Mill third- and fifth-graders made outstanding strides in 2004, outperforming all Maryland Title I schools in math and leading county Title I schools in reading, according to Maryland State Department of Education data. Federally funded Title I schools have a high population of low-income students. The school continued its success the next year, showing some of the best results among the most economically and linguistically challenged children, according to a 2005 MCPS report.

Viers Mill staff and administrators credit the school’s success over the last years to a well-rounded community effort. That includes teachers, staff, parents and students, as well as private contributors who supported a rigorous academic curriculum and activities, such as mentoring and after-school reading programs for students, parent tutorials and family learning nights.

It’s not any one of those contributing factors more than another, said Jenny Walker, a Viers Mill kindergarten teacher. Staff could not develop effective teaching strategies and curriculums without the school’s supportive administration, which provides the time and the training to get the job done.

Walker said that support feeds into the energy that can be felt throughout the school. Such enthusiasm translates into positive attitudes and successful students, she said.

‘‘We believe that the kids can achieve anything and we believe as a staff that we can achieve it,” Walker said. ‘‘That kind of feeds that positive energy that keeps us striving toward our goal.”

During her six years at Viers Mill, Walker said she did not perceive the school’s demographics as a factor that would prevent her students from reaching their goals.

‘‘We don’t look at it that way. They are all just kids,” Walker said.

Viers Mill defies the stereotype that children in such demographics cannot be held to the same standards as others, said MCPS Superintendent Jerry D. Weast.

‘‘All children can learn at high levels; this is the proof,” Weast said.

Students with limited English proficiency, a group that traditionally has difficulty with standardized tests, continued to make strides last year. About 90 percent of those grade 3 students scored proficient or above in reading and 85 percent scored at that level in math, according to the MCPS report. The reading gap among black and white students in grade 3 closed as both groups reached a proficiency rate of 100 percent.

The school also reached significant milestones among Title I schools last year when it set a minimum proficiency rate of 76 percent for each racial and ethnic group in reading and math for grades 3, 4, and 5.

That success did not come overnight. Those proficiency rates, in some cases, have doubled in the last three years. The plan for the school now, is to continue, said Matthew Devan, Viers Mill principal, who took over this year from James Virga. Virga has taken an administrative position in the school system.

‘‘There are so many strengths to work with [that involve] our staff,” said Devan, who will focus on refining the existing curriculum and developing more support for the school.