Hillcrest Elementary earns U.S. Department of Education Blue Ribbon Award

photo by: Elvyn Jones

Hillcrest Elementary School has been named a U.S. Department of Education 2018 National Blue Ribbon School. It was one of only six schools in Kansas to win the award, which is given to schools with exemplary academic performance.

A small plaque in the principal’s office explains why the U.S. Department of Education recognized Lawrence’s Hillcrest Elementary as a 2018 National Blue Ribbon School, Hillcrest Principal Tammy Becker said.

The plaque reads “Teamwork (noun): The collaborative action of a group, especially when effective or efficient.”

“That’s a big part of it,” Becker said of the award, which was announced Monday. “This award is a reflection on the hard work of the staff, students and our families.”

Becker, who has been principal of Hillcrest for 18 years, would add the words “relationships” and “creativity” to further explain why Hillcrest was recognized as a 2018 Blue Ribbon Exemplary High Performance School. To be considered for the award, Hillcrest’s state assessment scores had to be in the top 15 percent statewide.

“This award is all about performing at a high level,” she said. “Our staff believes that is about more than just what happens in the classroom. We try hard to find creative ways to support our students’ social and emotional aspects, as well as their academic needs.”

Hillcrest Elementary, 1045 Hilltop Drive, is a neighborhood school for the children living immediately west of the University of Kansas campus, but it is also one of the district’s four English as a Second Language, or ESL, cluster schools with Cordley, Sunflower and Schwegler elementaries, Becker said. More than 50 percent of children enrolled at the school are ESL students. Many ESL students are children of KU international students and instructors living nearby, but ESL students bused in from throughout the district account for more than 40 percent of the school’s enrollment.

photo by: Elvyn Jones

Flags from 65 countries hang in the Hillcrest Elementary School lunchroom, representing the homelands of the school’s current and past students. More than 50 percent of the school’s students are learning English as a second language.

“Fifty-eight percent of our students are white,” Becker said. “Of the remaining 42 percent, about 30 percent are Hispanic. Many of our kids don’t have a lot of opportunities outside of school. What we do outside of the classroom has to be very robust with lots of opportunities. We really have to think outside of the box to support kids with high levels of need.”

An example of the creativity is the school’s Wednesday club day, Becker said. Like other schools in the district, Hillcrest tried to have club days after school, but it had limited participation because of the number of students who rode buses to and from school, she said. The solution was to have club day during school hours.

Jennifer Wyatt, a Hillcrest second-grade resource teacher, said the idea was a hit with kids. It also allows the school to reach more students.

“It gives kids who maybe don’t excel in academics a chance to excel creatively or athletically,” she said.

Wyatt said the school benefited from Becker’s approach to innovation.

“She is open to trying new things,” she said. “If you can justify it, she is open to new ideas.”

The Kansas Department of Education nominated Hillcrest in January to the U.S. Department of Education for the Blue Ribbon Award, Becker said. That was based on the school’s assessment scores from the 2016-2017 school year.

The U.S. Department of Education then reviewed the test scores of Hillcrest and the other nominated schools for the 2017-2018 school year, Becker said. The U.S. Department of Education also evaluated information that schools submitted in February and March on such things as curriculum, instructional methods, interpersonal-relationship building, professional development, school leadership and the school’s climate and culture.

“We had a staff brainstorming on how to highlight our strengths,” she said. “It was a really good way to reflect on the practices and procedures we had in place.”

Becker will attend an award ceremony Nov. 7-8 in Washington, D.C. She has selected one member of the staff to go with her, and that’s Wyatt, who has been at Hillcrest for 26 years.

“I chose the person who has been here the longest,” she said. “She’s the only staff member who has been here longer than me. I didn’t know how else to do it. It really is a reflection of the work of the entire team.”

Past Lawrence school district schools to receive the Blue Ribbon Award were Quail Run, 1998; Broken Arrow, 2009; and Woodlawn, 2010.


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