DIVIDE - Some fine-tuning and finessing around how teachers teach and how students learn at Summit Elementary School in Divide led to a surprise award that carries a lot of meaning.
"I thought I would fall out of my chair - it came out of nowhere," said Principal Katie Rexford, speaking Wednesday of when she got word in December that her rural mountain school of 350 students was one of 63 in the nation to be named a 2017 Title 1 Distinguished School.
The winners will be honored Friday at the 2018 National Title I Conference in Philadelphia.
It's a big deal.
"It's an award for all teachers, but not just teachers," Rexford said. "It's the students - they've been working really hard - and the parents. We've seen a shift in parent participation. It's a credit to everybody in the school community in that their hard work is paying off."
Summit, one of three elementary schools in Woodland Park School District RE-2, earned the recognition for "closing the academic achievement gap between student groups," which means minorities, low-income students, English language learners and students with disabilities are holding their own academically, compared with classmates not in those groups.
Up to two schools per state win the annual award; the other 2017 Colorado recipient is Eads Elementary in Eads.
One of the factors that makes the recognition significant is that schools don't apply to be considered.
The Colorado Department of Education analyzes two years of standardized testing data among the state's 622 Title 1 schools, which receive additional federal funding for tutoring and other assistance to help even the field for underprivileged children.
For the past two years of standardized state assessments, Summit has achieved a growth percentile of 62 in English language arts, out of 99, and 54 in math. The state median growth percentile is 50.
Among students who qualify for reduced price or free meals, math advancement jumped from 38 in 2016 to 55 growth percentile in 2017, compared with a state median of 46.
Award-winning schools also demonstrate strengths including team approaches, focused professional development, individualized programs for students and strong bonds between the school, parents and the community.
Rexford doesn't point to any one reason for Summit's accomplishment, but rather a combination of approaches toward the end goal of every child performing at grade level.
Structuring the school day so that reading, writing and math are the focus in the morning means "kids are fresh" when they tackle those core subjects, she said.
"That's been huge and very helpful for the last two years," Rexford said.
Summit receives $135,000 a year in Title 1 funding. Interventionists work with at-risk readers, whose struggles are "immense," said Title 1 teacher Val Brown.
"It's hard for them, but encouragement and teaching them baseline things gives them confidence to become readers," she said.
Having children practice reading every day at home also has been an emphasis.
"We work on building stamina and encourage them to continue to learn," Brown said.
Missing foundational skills leave gaps in a child's reading ability, which specialists help address.
"Although they struggle, I see such a desire - if you just give me the tools I need, I'll do my part," said Tracey Brown-Johnson, another Title 1 teacher at Summit. "They're excited when they grow - their attitudes change."
Teachers are purposeful in their planning, and students' abilities are individually examined.
"It's dynamic," Brown-Johnson said.
"We're getting better at analyzing our data," Rexford said. "Our focus is being nimble to meeting the kids' needs."
Through a program called Summit Studio, students select an area of interest and pursue learning a new skill or idea through collaboration, problem solving and creative thinking.
The school also offers special events, such as Wednesday's family literacy night. More than 100 parents and students signed up to play games centered on reading instruction and literacy skills.
"In years past, to have over 100 people coming, we'd be hard-pressed to have that," Rexford said.
An annual "Read with the Principal" opportunity for students and a book exchange, which has amassed more than 1,000 books this year, also are offered.
Cheryl Mijares, a mother of five whose youngest is a third grader at Summit, said she likes knowing all the staff and that they know her and her children.
"They seem to care about kids here," Mijares said. "If I have a question about anything I can ask. They're very approachable."
Pikes Peak region schools have taken the Title 1 Distinguished award for the past four years. Wildflower Elementary in Harrison School District 2 in Colorado Springs won in 2016, Palmer Lake Elementary in Lewis-Palmer School District 38 in Monument in 2015 and Centennial Elementary in Harrison D-2 in 2014.
In addition the closing the achievement gap, the award also can be given for exceptional student performance for two or more years, or excellence in serving special populations, such as migrant or homeless students.