A school of distinction

La Jolla Elementary School was recently named one of 343 exemplary public elementary schools when it was selected as a 2008 California Distinguished School.

“It is a school community award and that’s what I like about it,” said Principal Donna Tripi. “I feel like it recognizes all of the kids, all of the parents, all of the school staff. We’re all working together to make this an exemplary school.”

Following a rigorous application process, qualifying schools then participate in an onsite validation visit from school district officials.

“The process of investigating one’s school with a group of colleagues provides an opportunity for them to think about the things they don’t normally think about,” said Karen LaBonte, special assistant to the superintendent. “It’s putting up a mirror and taking some time to see what the reflection is. Usually, they are surprised to realize all the wonderful things they’re doing for kids.”

The California School Recognition Program was started in 1985 to “publicize and reinforce the priorities of the State Board of Education and State Superintendent of Public Instruction.” Participation is voluntary, but the designation is significantly valued by the state’s public schools. Approximately 5 percent of the state’s schools are selected annually to receive the four-year distinction.

Schools must meet a variety of standards to be eligible to apply for the award, including measures such as No Child Left Behind Adequate Yearly Progress and the Academic Performance Index.

Once deemed eligible, school administrators must complete a 20-page narrative report. The application solicits information on specific school programs and initiatives in areas such as curriculum, assessment and accountability, leadership and collaboration, professional development, students with special needs, family and community partnerships and school culture.

Although La Jolla Elementary has been eligible to apply for the award, the school never applied - until this year.

“We felt our school has been a distinguished school for all the years we’ve been working together, and it was time for us to go for the official recognition,” Tripi said. “I feel like we could have achieved it before; you just have to make the commitment to doing it.”

Tripi worked with a team comprised of representatives for each grade level. They started by brainstorming to create a list of all the things in place at the school that aligned with the application criteria. The writing team then began the narrative report, which was submitted on Dec. 21, 2007.

Academic achievement is only one criterion for the award. Schools must also demonstrate that they are meeting the needs of every child, providing a rich curriculum and involving parents.

The school’s Read Me a Story program is one example of both parent volunteerism and a mechanism for supporting students.

“It was meant to provide an extra read-aloud experience for children who really don’t have that opportunity at home,” Tripi said.

Volunteers work one-on-one with students, reading aloud to them for 30 minutes. The adults talk about the concepts in the story, ask questions and help the child build self-confidence.

In February, Tripi received word that the school had been nominated for approval. The next step in the process was a site visit from a three-person county team to validate the application.

The day-long visit in March included an interview with Tripi, visits to each classroom and interaction with teachers and parents.

“They really knew the school by the time they left,” Tripi said.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell personally called to tell Tripi her school had been selected as one of California’s best.

“It was very exciting, that he took the time to call 343 schools,” Tripi said.

On May 16, representatives from the winning schools - 343 out of 940 applicants in 189 districts in 39 counties - gathered at Disneyland for an awards ceremony. Tripi and her writing team attended the event. They received a gold-plated plaque and a banner. Both were unveiled to the students, parents and staff members during their weekly Pledge on the Field event May 23.

“It really does make you feel like everything you knew about your school is true,” said Christie Duguid, president of the PTA and parent of a third and fifth grader at La Jolla Elementary school. “It makes you feel wonderful about sending your kids to public school.”

“I think it’s just wonderful to recognize the efforts of everyone here, and I think that was the reason to go through the process,” Tripi said. “I just really wanted to show my appreciation to our whole school community. They deserve to be recognized for their distinguished service to our school and their commitment to a quality education.”