Small school, big honor

Years ago, I suggested the state try to replicate small-school Weiner’s formula for success in every district. By every performance measure—average ACT, graduation rate, benchmark scores, AP participation—Weiner posted high marks, at a per pupil cost thousands of dollars below larger districts.

The only deficiency at Weiner was that student enrollment fell ever-so-slightly below the state’s arbitrary number for a couple of years. Ironically, in the year it was consolidated, Weiner’s enrollment had rebounded to exceed the minimum 350 students.

Shortly after Weiner became part of the Harrisburg district, the storied high school—whose 126-year history never included any academic or financial distress—was closed.

Fortunately, Weiner Elementary School remained open, and continues in its high-performing tradition. In recognition, Weiner Elementary was one of only 14 rural schools, out of 243 total elementary schools, named as a National Blue Ribbon Award Winner this year.

As always, overachievement is Weiner’s educational hallmark.

Statistically and demographically speaking, it’s unlikely for Weiner Elementary to rise to a National Blue Ribbon standard from its humble rural Arkansas roots. Only 8.9 percent of Poinsett County residents have a college degree. The median household income is nearly 25 percent less, and the poverty rate more than 30 percent higher, than neighboring Craighead County. Some 82 percent of Weiner Elementary’s students are considered economically disadvantaged–a higher percentage than any other rural school on the winners’ list.

And yet Weiner Elementary’s 16-page Blue Ribbon Award application reads like the kind of highly progressive, high-tech profile you’d expect from a prosperous suburban school.

Even many large rural elementary schools, like Southwest Calloway Elementary in Kentucky (whose 469 K-5 enrollment dwarfs Weiner’s 125 K-6 number), proudly tout the fact that all students have “access” to class-room Chromebooks.

Every single student at Weiner Elementary is assigned an individual device; in K-2 it’s an iPad, in grades 3 and 4 it’s a Chromebook, and fifth- and sixth-grade students are all toting around their own MacBook Air laptops. Weiner Elementary was designated an Arkansas “School of Innovation” in that program’s first year following its adoption by the Legislature in 2013.

Schools of Innovation are allowed waivers from certain rules, provided they can demonstrate and present new ideas that improve academic performance for students. And innovate is what Weiner Elementary has done in true blue-ribbon fashion.

Digital connectivity is maximized to enable and enhance communication among students, teachers and parents about homework, activities and school events. As worded in its application: “Technology is readily available in our one-to-one school and its use is embraced for all.”

Keyboarding instruction begins in kindergarten, and starting in third grade, students keep a digital portfolio using Google Sites. Teachers stay in touch using Google Classroom, as well as teacher Web pages and group texting. Posts on the Weiner Elementary Facebook page can reach more than 4,000 people and the page has more likes than the town of Weiner has residents.

In addition to technology, Weiner also sets the curve in academic areas. All students at Weiner Elementary are taught Spanish (by a native speaker) five days a week, and fifth- and sixth-graders can elect to take Spanish I or II for high school credit. The Social Studies/History curriculum includes a study of Arkansas history in every grade. And even though visual and musical art is continually incorporated in project-based curricula classes, all students still take a music theory class every week.

Instructionally, Weiner Elementary uses a tiered approach to keep all students in every course progressing: those at grade level as well as those working below or above it. Any students needing remediation are tutored, individually or in small groups, at least three times per week.

Weiner Elementary focuses on foundational educational tenets and proven principles like the importance of relationships, the link between self-esteem and achievement, and the need for cultural awareness beyond a small town’s city limits.

Every day starts with a morning assembly, where students recite the pledge of allegiance and sing the national anthem. The assembly also features lessons centered around the artist, musician and place of the week, as well as a Spanish word of the day and a daily “face of creativity.”

Weiner has a long history of support by its local residents and parents, which is arguably the primary factor in school success.

“The work, time, and money given by community and family members demonstrate to the students the importance that adults place on their education, which in turn influences students to value their education,” its application proclaims.

Over the course of a century and more, Weiner alums fervently support the school that served them, their parents and even their grandparents so well.

There wouldn’t still be a Weiner Elementary if not for that undying local effort and commitment. As a National Blue Ribbon Award recipient, what a loss that would have been for Arkansas.

Indeed, some of the best gains to be made in state public education might come from reopening great community schools that were foolishly consolidated and closed.

I’ll say it again: Wherever the state can replicate Weiner’s formula, it should do so.


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