Topeka school experiences unprecedented success

by Marc and Julie Anderson
mjanderson@theleaven.org

TOPEKA — Last month, teachers and administrators here at Most Pure Heart of Mary Elementary School in Topeka learned how their students had scored on the State Assessment Exams given last spring.

And, oh, how they scored.

Out of a total of 20 possible areas in which a school could achieve a Standard of Excellence, Most Pure Heart students achieved exactly 20 — the only school in the archdiocese to do so.

It’s an accomplishment that both school and archdiocesan officials say is “unprecedented.”

Administered by the Kansas Department of Education, the exams are administered annually to students in the third through eighth grades and evaluate whether students are meeting minimum standards for their grade levels in mathematics and reading.

For the first time last spring, students at the fourth- and seventh-grade levels were also evaluated in science, while sixth- and eighth-graders were tested in social studies. Currently, schools have the option of taking the exams via pencil and paper or online.

Despite limited financial resources, the school’s administration made the decision a few years ago to update the school’s computer labs to allow for online testing. It’s a decision that Sharon Kenagy, the technology coordinator, said makes sense for students in the 21st century.

“We had lots of people telling us the kids would do much better with paper and pencil,” said Kenagy, “but we believed our kids would do best using their own medium, the computer.”

The assessment results were posted last month on the Kansas Department of Education’s Web site. School officials say they looked up the results almost as soon as they were available and then alerted the teachers and staff by e-mail.

The next day, principal Bill Hund gathered the students who had taken the test for a group picture and announced the school’s success to them. A few days later, teachers rewarded the students with an extra recess, and the Parent-Teacher Organization provided ice cream sandwiches for the students.

Later, during a special meeting for the faculty and staff, everyone in attendance was given a certificate of thanksgiving, along with a turkey, in appreciation for his or her efforts in helping the school become a School of Excellence.

No success comes without a lot of hard work, and both teachers and administrators say Most Pure Heart of Mary School is a place where hard work is a way of life. According to Mike Stallbaumer, who with Kenagy teaches classes in media and technology for sixth- through eighth-graders, said the faculty and staff are amazing.

“They work tirelessly and ‘beyond the call’ to achieve mastery of the concepts in all subject areas,” he said. “Our students are strongly supported by our families and highly motivated to show what they know and what they can do.”

In addition to committed teachers, updated technology and hard work, school officials are quick to list parental involvement as another reason for the school’s recent achievement.

Two-way communication is the norm, not the exception. As an example, one teacher shared an e-mail he’d recently received from a parent.

It read: “Never underestimate the power of your words and worth! Cole came home from school Friday telling me all about the video you put together praising and congratulating the students for their achievements on state assessments. I bet he used the word awesome five or six times when telling me about the whole day. . . . I, too, think it is pretty awesome when you can impress an upper level student the way you did.”

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