Doing it for the kids: Culture of family, support at Van Buren Elementary leads to national recognition as Blue Ribbon School

Despite the uncertainty of instructing students during a global pandemic, staff and teachers at Van Buren Elementary School made sure to meet each student at their level and propel them to success.

This work resulted in the school being honored as a 2021 National Blue Ribbon School. The news was announced by U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona on Sept. 21, but staff knew the school had been nominated for the honor by the Indiana Department of Education in February.

The school was one of seven to officially be honored as a Blue Ribbon School in Indiana and was one 325 schools in the country to receive the honor.

“Even the nomination was thrilling. We were so excited just to be nominated,” VBE master teacher Sarah Cochran said.

As master teacher, Cochran works in VBE to help other teachers learn different methods of reaching students.

Cochran said that she knew the teachers and students at Van Buren Elementary were capable of achieving this honor.

“Our teachers put in a lot of work on the front end preparing in ways that every student can be successful. It is not easy,” she said.

Teachers participate in weekly trainings during school hours. Cochran said they work to develop success criteria for each student then implement that criteria using different teaching methods that are meant to teach all learners.

“We meet learners where they are and grow them so that every learner can feel successful in their own type of success,” she said.

The state nomination for education’s highest honor designated Van Buren as an “Exemplary Achievement Gap Closing School.” This means VBE was in the top 15 percent of schools who closed achievement gaps for English and mathematics for students groups, including those are low income and in special education, over the past three to five years. The achievement was measured by state assessments, like ILEARN.

After being nominated, schools had to complete an application detailing curriculum, culture, leadership and engagement, which was then evaluated by the U.S. Department of Education.

At the time of the application, 40 percent of Van Buren students were on a free or reduced lunch program and 23 percent received special education services.

Overall ILEARN scores increased for all students 29.3 percent for English-language arts and math last school year compared to ISTEP scores in 2018-2019. In 2019, ISTEP standardized testing was replaced by a test called ILEARN.

Students did not take ILEARN in the spring of 2020 due to COVID-19.

Within that comparison, special education students also grew 3.6 percent in ELA and 21.7 percent in math assessment pass rates. Students in the free and reduced lunch program achieved a 16.8 percent growth in math pass rates.

The application for the Blue Ribbon was written based on work during the 2020-2021 school year.

The school also sets reading goals and last school year there was an average growth of two reading levels in each grade level and 87 percent of students were able to achieve at, or above, grade level success in reading fluency skills.

The reading goal progress also showed that 62.5 percent of kindergarteners who attended preschool at VBE met, or exceeded, reading expectations compared to 35.7 percent of success rates for kindergartners who did not attend preschool in Brown County Schools.

Cochran said the Blue Ribbon confirms what the staff already knew.

“We have an amazing school community out here in Van Buren and group of students, and wonderful, dedicated teachers, but to be able to showcase them in this national spotlight is what is the most gratifying because they do work so hard every day,” she said.

School year 2020-2021 required even more hard work as teachers adjusted to instructing students at home, on a hybrid schedule or on quarantine for weeks at a time. But teachers showed up and worked hard to improve learning in classrooms — no matter their locations — every single day, Cochran said.

Principal Gavin Steele agrees. He said the reason the school was honored is because of the staff there.

“What makes schools like us special is the ability to know each and every kid and working tirelessly finding a path that works for each individual student,” he said.

“We just have an amazing staff that doesn’t stop, that continues to work with each other and with parents trying to find what works best for each student and taking those successes and building on them.”

Sharing excitement

The day the Blue Ribbon announcement was made, Steele called all of the students and staff into the gymnasium. Before COVID-19 the school would meet every Friday as a “family” to discuss the week and prepare for the next.

When Steele called the Blue Ribbon assembly it was the first time the entire school had been together for an assembly in a year and a half.

“Just all getting back in the gym was like everyone getting back together, like the family coming back together,” Steele said.

“It was fun just to be able to share the excitement with the people who have been the ones who put in the hard work. … The kids had no idea, so watching their expressions and their excitement that day in the gym was very rewarding. I think it was rewarding to the teachers to see the joy of the kids.”

Steele said the school looks forward to a time when they can safely assemble every Friday as a school family again.

Ensuring that VBE feels like a family is important to Steele, who took over as principal at VBE four years ago.

The feeling of family extends outside the school walls to parents, guardians and the Van Buren Township community too.

“That’s what we strive to do,” Steele said.

Ensuring parents and families feel involved during a pandemic presents its own challenges since they cannot enter the buildings for PTO events and other traditional school events, like fall festival.

But Steele makes sure the parents knows he is always there. He is there outside to greet children every morning and is there directing traffic at the end of the school day.

“They have my email, a phone number to reach me directly on my cell. I am a phone call away, an email away,” Steele said.

“Our teachers are there for them.”

Embracing that family culture makes the staff stronger too.

“We continue to learn each other, learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses and what we can do help each other out and at the end of the day with the understanding of what we do stays student focused,” Steele said.

‘Our Class is a Family’

It is towards the end of the school day on Sept. 29.

Second-grade teacher Emily Gaither sits at the front of her class with her students sitting on the floor in front of her as she explains a math building block exercise before the little learners return to their desks to try it themselves.

Gaither has been a teacher at Van Buren for seven years now.

“We love these students like we love our own children,” she said after school.

Being a part of the Van Buren family means that there is always someone to bounce ideas off of or ask for help.

“It’s hard work, but it’s for the kids. We’re all here for those kids no matter what,” Gaither said.

Sarah Forest is the school counselor. She has been at Van Buren for eight years. Both Gaither and Forest were at the school when it absorbed students from the former Nashville Elementary School and they were there when Steele took over.

“Gavin did more of the knitting together bonding as staff members and making sure everyone was taken care of professionally and personally, so that has filtered down to the kids,” Forest said of his leadership.

“It has built up over the years to the point now where we’re pretty tight. Don’t move us. We want to stay where we are,” Gaither added.

“I pride myself on the family here.”

Before the pandemic, the Van Buren family would gather for game nights and other events. Now the emphasis is on the health of students and following safety regulations until it is safe to gather again.

“And keeping everyone in school as much as possible was a huge goal,” Gaither said.

“It takes a village and that’s true. It takes every one of us to make this happen.”

As the school emptied out at the end of the school day, fourth- and fifth-grade teacher Heather Sawyer and fifth-grade teacher Annette Fields were in fourth-grade teacher Piper Bowser’s classroom. Over in the corner there is a bulletin board that reads “Our class is a family.”

This is Fields’ first year at Van Buren. She previously taught at the now-closed Brown County Intermediate School, which was home to fifth- and sixth-graders who returned to either their home elementary school or middle school this year.

“From an outsider’s perspective I have never been in a building where the community was so strong,” Fields said.

When the news was announced that Fields would be coming over to VBE to teach the next day her desk was filled with cards and gifts from her new co-workers, making her feel welcomed.

“Once I came it was an overwhelming feeling of ‘This is a really tight unit and they all work together, pitch in.’ It’s very unique. I am sure that has an impact on the achievement because everyone does work together so well,” she said.

Bowser said that the VBE community is “all about working together and supporting each other.”

“I think our students are comfortable with us because of the relationships we build and they see us together, so they know ‘Hey they are friends,’” Sawyer added.

Each year the school sets a schoolwide goal and that moves down to grade level then classroom goals and ultimately individual student goals.

Fields said that VBE encourages student owning their education.

“The kids being involved in their learning and holding the kids accountable,” she said.

“Kids wanting to be involved in their learning and understanding. At this age for them to understand and be held accountable for that and want to be involved in it is huge.”

The last school to receive this honor in Brown County was Sprunica Elementary School in 2014.