Double Springs Elementary recognized for excellence with a true-blue award

DSES students and faculty, shown here enjoying the WCHS band's Christmas concert, decked themselves as well as the halls in blue and celebrated a "Blue Christmas" in honor of their Blue Ribbon award.

DOUBLE SPRINGS - Double Springs Elementary School has achieved a new level of success by becoming a Blue Ribbon Lighthouse School, the highest status awarded by the non-profit organization Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence, Inc.

BRSE evaluates schools in nine performance categories: student focus and support, school organization and culture, standards and curriculum, leadership, active teaching and learning, student achievement, technology integration, professional development and engagement of families and the community. It then helps them improve in each of these areas as they advance through four tiers of excellence.

DSES has been working with BRSE for several years, achieving the status of Aspiring School (tier 1) in 2015, earning the Points of Light Award (tier 2) in 2016 and becoming a Blue Ribbon Beacon School (tier 3) in 2017. Winston County Schools Superintendent Greg Pendley had specifically asked Principal Heather Tucker to work toward Lighthouse status (tier 4) when she came to DSES in 2019, and though COVID-19 caused a delay, in the spring of 2020, she reached out to BRSE to revive the process.

DSES is the second school that has achieved Lighthouse status while Tucker was serving as its principal. Meek Elementary received the award in 2019. “Taking two schools through this process has brought a sense of joy and pride to me, not pride in myself but pride in what [the teachers and students] have done,” Tucker said. “My teachers are the front lines. I tell them that all the time, every day.”

A blue Christmas now; next year, the Magic Kingdom
DSES will receive its physical Lighthouse Award in December 2022 at the BRSE conference at Disney World, but the school celebrated its success during its holiday festivities this month. Dubbed “Blue Christmas” in honor of the award, DSES’s Christmas celebration took place on Thursday, Dec. 9. The WCHS band performed a Christmas concert for students that morning. Faculty, staff and students wore blue, and several teachers also donned blue face paint or masks and trimmed themselves in blue Christmas lights. Everyone enjoyed cupcakes with blue sprinkles with their Christmas dinner.

The school buildings were brimming with Christmas decorations, including numerous trees, stacks of blue-wrapped gifts, balloons, paper snowflakes, garlands and student artwork. One entire hall was swathed in blue paper, which—in combination with blue fabric draped over the light panels—gave the effect of walking into a glacier.

That evening, DSES held an open house or “Christmas Walk-through” where a different gift from each grade was handed out to children by that grade’s teachers as visitors strolled through what was a veritable winter wonderland.
The road to Lighthouse status
The celebration was well-deserved as the process of earning any of the four BRSE awards is long and rigorous. First, BRSE surveys students, parents, faculty, staff and members of the community. Next, evaluators visit the school and meet with students, faculty, staff and parents to follow up on the survey responses and further investigate how well the school measures up in those nine performance categories.

In October, a group of second, third, and fourth graders met with evaluators. “Our kids did a great job promoting their school and sharing the things they like and things they’d like to see change,” Tucker said.

An example of what the students wanted to see was a return of the art programs provided by the Winston County Arts Council, which have been on hold because of the pandemic. For now, teachers are bringing more art projects into their classrooms to fill that request.

Tucker attributes DSES’s ability to advance to Lighthouse status this year in large part to dramatic increases in student achievement, to a growing spirit of unity and cooperation among DSES, Double Springs Middle School and Winston County High School and to the outstanding support the community provides to the school.   

Increases in student achievement
Between the fall of 2020 and the fall of 2021, DSES saw a 159 percent increase in the number of students proficient in English language arts, as gauged by the Early Literacy Assessment, and a 203 percent increase in the number of students proficient in math, as gauged by the Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program, known as ACAP.

Those improvements in test scores have not required limiting student learning only to how to succeed on these particular assessments. On the contrary, Tucker said, DSES focuses on giving students a deep understanding of concepts. “If you teach to those standards, the test will take care of itself,” she said.

“We don’t want to hit (only) the surface,” Tucker concluded. “We can’t do that. All of our kids need a deep understanding of what they’re doing—and why.”

One  reason for the increase in language arts proficiency this year, Tucker said, was the four-week summer reading camp DSES held as a result of the Alabama Literacy Act.

Tucker also cites changes to instructional methods as an important way DSES has helped students improve, including efforts to keep the curriculum consistent both within each grade and among all grades and the greater use of small-group learning, which she estimates now accounts for around 90 percent of the average school day.

Working with small groups of students allows teachers and academic coaches to better tailor instruction to the needs of individuals, Tucker said, whether that means identifying and addressing deficiencies or helping students who are already excelling to improve further.

“You’ve got to ask every day, ‘What are we doing to help (our students) succeed?’ There’s not a teacher in the school who’s not doing that,” Tucker said. “(DSES teachers) work themselves to the bone. They go above and beyond every day for our kids.”

Third grade science and social studies teacher Angela McCullar said, “We—the teachers and the students—work really hard for the school, and I don’t think people realize just how hard.”

McCullar went on to explain that they were already doing a lot of the things necessary to earn the Lighthouse Award and just had to demonstrate that to BRSE.

“All the teachers are always willing to work to put in the extra effort—(for example) to make the halls look like they do!” she said, referring to the Blue Christmas decorations. “It does not just appear. It takes a lot of work after hours.”

One town, one school, one family
Tucker is proud not only of her teachers and students but also of the cohesiveness of the three schools in Double Springs, noting that while some parents once felt there was a disconnect among the schools, perhaps because of the physical distance that sets DSES apart, now they truly live up to DSES’s motto, “One town, one school, one family.”

Tucker also praised the local community for the support it lends to DSES. She mentioned as an example that a recent fundraiser raised $22,000 and shared an anecdote about a nearby business owner who came to the rescue on his forklift when a recent shipment of textbooks arrived in a truck without a liftgate.

“We appreciate their support of our kids,” Tucker said.

Looking ahead
While it has reached the highest status BRSE awards, Tucker said that DSES won’t stop striving to improve. For one thing, its Lighthouse status will be up for renewal in five years, meaning the school will go through the entire evaluation process again.

“Our overarching goals,” Tucker said, “are to continue to increase achievement . . . (to) continue that cohesiveness and that process of reaching between our schools . . . (and) to pinpoint and then address areas of learning loss” caused by the pandemic.  
Further, DSES teachers are currently learning new ways to teach a deep understanding of math, and they are also taking LETRS training, in accordance with the Alabama Literacy Act, to learn new ways to teach reading based on what happens in the brain as one learns to read.

“When you understand that process,” Tucker said, “you teach differently.” 

See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.
Subscribe now!