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Northside Elementary named National Blue Ribbon School by Department of Education

Sean Ellertson
St. James Plaindealer

Last Thursday, Northside Elementary was named a National Blue Ribbon Schools Program school, one of the highest awards given for education in the United States.

Northside Elementary was nominated for its work in the achievement gap closing. This means that Northside was in the top 15% in the state in school sub-group improvement, were in the top 40% of the state for sub-group performance, and that the school's improvement exceeded the state's improvement.

The nomination is another major step in the eight-year odyssey Northside has had from being named a priority school back in 2012.

"It was a gut punch. But the best part is that the teachers here—instead of kind of wallowing in that—they just decided we're not going to live with that," said then-Northside and current Middle School High School Principal Karla Beck.

Through the grueling application processes for School Improvement Grants, the school was able to add more positions and go through more training to start the process of building up the school to where it is today.

"2012 was by far the lowest point of my 33-year teaching career at Northside," said third-grade teacher Jill Taylor in an email. "There is not a teacher on staff who will forget being told that our school was one of the lowest-performing title schools in the state of Minnesota—teachers take that kind of news very personally. I have learned however that when news of that nature is delivered,  you have two choices: roll over or stand up and rise to the occasion. Our staff chose the latter."

"We always wanted to succeed, and we certainly knew our students were capable as well," said fifth-grade teacher Susie Carlson in an email. "In some ways, we didn't know what we didn't know. It took hours, days, months, and years to go from a Priority School to a Celebration School (a few years back). That was a harder 'lift' than going from a Celebration School to a Blue Ribbon School. But this was definitely an exciting bit of news to have during this unprecedented time in our world." 

Teachers had to set new standards, adjust curriculums, held 90-minutes of PLC's a week, crafted leadership teams, expanded professional development, and other changes were put in place.

In the span of one year, Northside graduated to a focus school. The next year, the school jumped to a continuous improvement school. The following year, Northside was celebration eligible.

"We've been through every level of this," said Beck.

In 2014, the school became a Turnaround Arts school.

Northside Principal Liam Dawson— now in his second year as principal— caught the end of the transformation of Northside.

"I think for most schools, with what happened in 2012, you may have seen an exodus of staff," said Dawson. "The staff here, they got tighter. They stayed together, and I think that's a huge testament to the staff. This would not have been possible without great leadership, and more importantly, the staff."

Dawson found out that the school had been recommended back in April, and had to keep it quiet until the last week.

"Finally being able to inform the staff was relieving," said Dawson. "Especially with the shift of middle school/high school going to distance learning and the growing anxiety of families in the community, this was really exciting news to share."

"What this mean's to our staff, is that all of that hard work they've put in since 2012 of being told that this is a school that needs to grow, that hard work paid off."

Dawson wants to continue to appeal to the diversity of St. James schools, and continue to work with Amy Young from the Minnesota Department of Education to help continue to promote and integrate diversity in the classroom.

A shift to standards-based learning will also help personalize learning for students.

"Where students present their mastery is on their assessments. We're able to then identify 'ok this student mastered three of the five standards on this assessment. Perfect. Now how can I help them with these two?'"

Even with his school being given this prestigious award, Dawson knows there is still work to be done.

"Looking at that aspect of closing the achievement gap, there's still a gap there. The works not done. So now it's, how can we continue to close that gap even further so that we can continue to provide the best education for our students in St. James?"

The school will receive a certificate and a plaque later this fall commemorating the honor. Included in the plaque is a photo that highlights the turnaround arts.

In a "normal year", Dawson and Superintendent Dr. Steve Heil would fly out to Washington D.C. to receive this honor. In November, a virtual recognition will be held.

Dawson is still looking into ideas on how to celebrate with students and staff.