By Ron Leir
Ron Shields considers it his personal Olympian moment.
When the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan picked Harrison High School as one of the nation’s Blue Ribbon schools last Tuesday, for Shields, the HHS principal and a four-decade school employee, the announcement struck an emotional chord.
To say that education runs in Shields’ genes would be no exaggeration: His dad Fred and uncle Walt were physical education instructors at HHS for 40 years each; his mother Amelia taught bookkeeping, business English and stenography 23 years at HHS.
“And I met my wife, Mary Pat, an art teacher, here,” he said. “Harrison High School is like a second home to me.”
In the school lobby is a glass case displaying the uniform his dad, Fred, a National Soccer Hall of Famer, wore as a member of the U.S. soccer team when it competed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. “He was there with [track star] Jesse Owens,” Shields said.
Now, Shields is part of an elite team that has cracked a rarefied level of academic competition – one that only 5% of schools nationwide attain.
“It’s a once in a lifetime feeling, being named a Blue Ribbon school,” he said. “I can’t tell you how proud I am for our entire district, and mostly for our staff and students.”
Shields is so upbeat because over the past five school years (2007-2008 to 2011-2012), HHS students’ passing rate in language arts climbed from 63% to 88% and from 57% to 78% in math, both on the state’s HSPA (High School Proficiency Assessment) test, which was deemed good enough to achieve recognition as an “exemplary improving” school.
Here’s how the DOE defines exemplary improving schools: “Schools with at least 40% of their students from disadvantaged backgrounds that have made the most progress in improving student performance on state assessments … in reading (English language arts) and mathematics in the most recent five years.”
For public schools, “made the most progress” means that the school “is among the top 10% of schools that have shown the greatest improvement in student achievement in the state over the most recent five years” and that disadvantaged students in that school must show comparable improvement.
Only 26 high schools from 15 states were so recognized, according to data furnished by the U.S. Department of Education. Other New Jersey schools listed as “exemplary improving” were High Tech High School in North Bergen, Dover High School and Wildwood High School.
High Tech High School and St. Francis Academy in Union City qualified for inclusion in another Blue Ribbon category: “Exemplary High Performing” schools.
The DOE will present program flags and plaques to representatives of the Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation at ceremonies slated for Nov. 18-19 in Washington, D.C. A total of 286 public and private elementary, middle and high schools will be honored for their achievements.
Aside from student performance, DOE reviews professional development, school leadership, family and community engagement and curriculum and instruction in evaluating schools, said Harrison Schools Superintendent James Doran.
“Anyone in the field of education who tracks anything to do with school progress would have to recognize that our rising test scores, for an urban school with a free or reduced lunch population that ranges from 70 to 80%, is phenomenal,” Doran said.
Doran attributed the turnabout in test results to two factors: “analysis and assessment of individual students’ academic performance and changing institutional strategies that engage students in learning with assessing their progress.”
That’s a reflection, he said, of recognizing that, “each kid learns differently,” and getting school administrators and teachers to reinvent classroom instructional styles to reach all students.
Echoing that notion, Shields said the scoring uptick “couldn’t have been done without our top-notch teachers and, in particular, math chairperson Deborah Ronan and English chairperson Christina Nidowicz,” who, he said, analyze the test data to help pinpoint students’ strengths and weaknesses and, where necessary, refer kids to extra class time for the help they need.
To make sure kids understand the point of each lesson, teachers test, quiz or assign class projects on a daily basis as a tool to assess students’ comprehension, Shields said.
The same approach is being applied on the elementary and middle school levels, he said, to get kids in those grades ready for this year’s new state-mandated PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College & Careers) testing regimen designed for grades 4 to 11.
But the “biggest reason” for the high school’s achievement, according to Shields, is “our connection to our kids. Those kids mean everything to us and it’s great to take pride in their accomplishments. This represents the work of the Harrison school community – our Middle School and Elementary Schools – because as they’ve gotten better, we’ve gotten better.”
A local celebration of the Blue Ribbon distinction is planned for Dec. 4, in conjunction with the annual Parents Open House, at HHS, he said.