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Cascade picks up its blue ribbon

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

In the race to the top of academic standards, school administrators rely heavily on the data provided by the state after each year's Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program is complete. Of the many reports generated, one in particular generated a list predicting which students would likely not receive passing grades in the next assessment.

As Martha Fisher, principal of Cascade Elementary, shared these results with her instructional staff two years ago, a kindergarten teacher blurted out, "We're not going to let that happen."

Journey begins

So began a voyage which culminated in a trip to Washington, D. C., this week by several of those same teachers. In September, Arne Duncan, the U. S. Secretary of Education named Cascade as a National Blue Ribbon School. The award ceremony was held Tuesday morning. Administrators and staff from Cascade Elementary School traveled to Washington, D. C. over the weekend to claim a coveted prize.

The Blue Ribbon program recognizes public and non-public elementary, middle and high schools where students achieve at very high levels. Cascade is one of only six Tennessee schools to receive the honor this year, and one of only 314 nationwide.

"When teachers come up with the solution, there is more buy-in," said Fisher. "There are great teachers all over Bedford County, but my teachers really do care from their hearts."

Added help

Every day at Cascade is an assessment of student skills, a chance to diagnose just where a student may be struggling, and to address any issues quickly. The school has an intervention room for students where they may go to get help with a lesson. "If they needed that extra 10-15 minutes to extend the lesson into a better understanding, those teachers can help," Fisher said.

Cascade also benefits from the support of a dedicated community of parents and alumni. Peer-tutors from the nearby high school are frequent visitors, as are students from The Webb School. Of the formula for success, "It is everyone being willing to pitch in and help," said Fisher.

More than academics

Of course, students aren't made up of test scores. "It's not always academic," said Fisher. Children may struggle with external influences, with confidence and self-esteem. "There are other children you know that really need that extra something."

The Cascade community provides that. In a staff meeting to announce the award, Fisher spoke from her heart, "I can look at you, at each one of your faces -- and there's a child's face that comes to my mind. When I look at you, I see the faces of the children whose lives you have changed. You went the extra mile to make an impact. You've really made a difference in their lives."

The sentiment extends not just to the teachers, said Fisher, but to each member of the school's staff -- including cafeteria and custodial staff members.

Sharing honors

Fisher, now in her sixth year as principal of the facility, was invited to attend the recognition ceremony along with one teacher. The award came with a $2,500 prize to cover the cost of travel.

"But the whole school has had a hand in achieving what we've done," Fisher said.

At the time of the award announcement, an invitation was issued to each of the school's 45 certified teachers who wished to attend. Thanks to community support, nearly $11,000 was raised through donations from the school's parent teacher organization, local businesses, parents and individuals. The school was able to take 26 staff members on the trip. Cascade Elementary is home to 45 certified teachers.

While only two school representatives were seated in the Regency Ballroom at D. C.'s Omni Shoreham Hotel, and only those two walked to the stage to receive the award, the other faculty members were in a nearby room watching a large-screen simulcast of the event. Those teachers were also able to take part in professional development sessions during their stay.

On the road

With differing travel preferences, some drove by car, some took a bus and others arrived by plane. The donations covered the cost of transportation and lodging, as well as the expense of substitute teachers who have filled in during the week.

According to Fisher, teachers purchased their own meals for the trip.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing for most people," said Fisher. "We're going to get a lot of good professional development."

"We're going to be doing networking sessions with other Blue Ribbon Schools. I'm really interested in getting with those schools, discussing their common core standards, and tracking to see if we are doing what we need to be doing to get where we want to be."

High honor

The National Blue Ribbon Awards have been given since 1982.

"These are schools that are ranked among a state's highest performing schools as measured by state assessments in both reading (English language arts) and mathematics or that score at the highest performance level on tests referenced by national norms in at least the most recent year tested," according to USDOE.

Schools were nominated by the state's chief school officer, and must have shown either exemplary performance or improvement on standardized test scores. Cascade Elementary was nominated in the Exemplary High Performing School category.

According to the Blue Ribbon Award website, "Communities often report that the award makes their neighborhood a more desirable place to live because parents want their children to attend a Blue Ribbon School -- and real estate agents use the Blue Ribbon award as a selling point for those neighborhoods."