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Deer Park named National Blue Ribbon school

by HILARY MATHESON
Daily Inter Lake | October 1, 2023 12:00 AM

Deer Park School was designated a 2023 Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education for being among Montana’s “exemplary high-performing schools.”

“We’re just really proud. It’s a big deal for a little school like ours,” Deer Park Principal Sheri Modderman said.

The rural Columbia Falls school is among 353 schools around the nation to receive the award and is one of three Montana schools to make the list. Anderson and Amsterdam elementary schools in Gallatin County were also named Blue Ribbon Schools. Montana Office of Public Instruction Superintendent Elsie Arntzen nominated the schools for the award.

The national award recognizes public and private K-12 schools and is based on overall academic performance or progress in closing achievement gaps among student subgroups. Exemplary high-performing schools have their state’s highest achieving students (top 15%) in English and mathematics, measured by state assessments, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

“It just shows that our hard work as a staff, and as a community has been paying off and it shows what the kids have been able to do,” Modderman said. “It’s extremely validating to know what we’re doing here is working.”

Deer Park is a Title I school, meaning it has a high number of students from low-income families, who are identified by qualifying for free or reduced lunches, which stands at about 35%, according to Modderman. Title I schools receive federal funding to identify disadvantaged students and provide additional support to help them succeed in the classroom and ensure they meet state standards.

In its application, Deer Park paid homage to its history as Flathead County’s oldest continuously active elementary school, while describing how it strives toward academic excellence despite a tight budget.

“Even though Deer Park School has evolved from that one-room schoolhouse into a thriving community of nearly 200 students, the staff, and faculty, the district has a small property tax base, the second smallest in the county. In spite of this monetary shortfall, the district has been able to attain academic excellence. We believe it is because the attitudes of the early settlers continue to embrace the community. What is that attitude? Rugged individualism. We believe that all people, no matter their circumstances, gender, faith, socio-economic status, culture, or country of origin, should be treated with respect and open arms. We believe that if circumstances don't work out, we don't give up; instead, we work harder. We figure out how to move forward with less,” the school stated in its application.

While National Blue Ribbon School winners represent the diversity of U.S. schools, they also share some core elements, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Educators in Blue Ribbon Schools demonstrate effective and innovative teaching and data-driven instruction, and the schools value and support teachers and staff through meaningful professional learning.

The award also recognizes how families and the larger community work with educators toward common goals.

Deer Park School viewed its small size and ruralness as an advantage when it comes to student and staff retention, leadership and class sizes, allowing for “a culture of knowing every student from their name to their successes.” Deer Park reported daily attendance rates from 2018 to 2022. Those percentages varied from 92% to 96%.

“Students are seen as unique individuals rather than an age group. Individualized learning is an element that Deer Park has embraced for years. We also welcome all students' input into their daily learning, to maintain the ideal of ownership in education. The concept of ‘outward learning’ is also on the forefront of the daily adventures of each classroom, where the outside world is connected to each student's life in an authentic way. The classroom lessons are introduced in ways that encourage critical thinking, problem solving, and projects that support each concept. It is not just about the exchange of knowledge, but about developing skills, abilities and competencies that allows each and every student to thrive,” the application stated.

In addition to meeting eligibility criteria and demographic data, applicants were tasked with providing an overview of curriculum and instruction; how it works with students below and above grade level or with disabilities; school climate and culture; and instructional strategies it uses to reach excellence.

“Deer Park prepares students for their future. Each educator has developed a toolkit of professional skills to ensure that personal attention, positivity, grit, recognition and appreciation grows not just in the classroom, but follows every student as they develop and mature. We have found what works, and we consistently embrace best practices in addition to the wisdom of our beloved staff and faculty.”

In 2020, Russell Elementary School in Kalispell was named a Blue Ribbon School. Schools may only receive the award once within the span of five years, among other eligibility criteria.

For more information about the program visit www2.ed.gov.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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