SILVER SPRING – Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recognized Highland Elementary School as a 2009 National Blue Ribbon School at a school assembly Tuesday, citing the principal’s leadership as key to significant improvement at the school.
“Leadership matters tremendously,” Duncan said of Highland Principal Ray Myrtle, who he said “fundamentally turned around” the school.
“I couldn’t be more proud” of these students, said Myrtle in turn. This year, 314 Blue Ribbon Schools were chosen by placing in the top 10 percent on state assessments or dramatically improving in those test scores over a five-year period. Highland Elementary made great progress on state exams.
Highland Elementary missed its Adequate Yearly Progress goals on Maryland School Assessment exams for four consecutive years, landing it on the Maryland State Department of Education’s Corrective Action list during the 2004-2005 school year, according to a news release from Montgomery County Public Schools.
Myrtle, former principal of the high-performing Somerset Elementary School in Chevy Chase, came out of retirement to start at Highland Elementary, whose poverty rate is at nearly 82 percent, for the school year beginning 2005. He changed staff and instituted new instruction methods.
Myrtle, said Duncan, “had a laser-like focus on literacy.”
Students at Highland Elementary have had difficulty with language arts proficiency in the past, Myrtle acknowledged, noting that there are 11 different languages spoken in student homes.
“There has been a great deal of work and effort,” Myrtle said. “We fight with language acquisition. We worry about the need for phonics and language studies.”
In 2009, more than 96 percent of students in third, fourth, and fifth grades scored at levels deemed proficient or advanced, according to the MCPS press release.
The Public Education Leadership Project at Harvard University has presented a case study on Myrtle and the school, titled “The Turn-Around and Highland Elementary School.”
Also present at the assembly: Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington; Dr. Jerry Weast, Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent; and Dr. Nancy Grasmick, Maryland State Department of Education Superintendent.
Fifth-grader Tiana Wright had the privilege of introducing Duncan, much to the delight of her parents and grandparents in the audience.
Despite the honor they received, Highland Elementary students were most excited about their upcoming pizza party, announced by Grasmick.
All Blue Ribbon Schools will be recognized at an awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., in November.
Other Maryland public schools designated Blue Ribbon schools are Seventh District Elementary School in Parkton, Hammond Middle School in Laurel, Stephen Decatur Middle School in Berlin, Southern High School in Harwood, and Western High School in Baltimore.