To apply for the recognition, schools submit descriptions of two programs or "signature practices" that are then assessed by an outside team of educators, and this year's eligibility criteria focused on students' "entitlement to an equitable and rigorous education," according the the state Department of Education, which sponsors the Distinguished Schools program.
"These awards are so much more than a plaque on the outside of Laurel and Oak Knoll," said Superintendent Maurice Ghysels in a press release issued May 2. "They are statewide recognition of the innovation, dedication, and high standards of the administrators, teachers, staff, students and parents" of those school communities, he said.
Oak Knoll Principal David Ackerman said that the effort to close the achievement gap while raising achievement for all students has been the most difficult task facing schools nationwide. "Oak Knoll teachers, supported by an amazing community, have implemented practices that can solve the most important social justice problems of our time," he said in the district's press release.
One of the programs detailed in Oak Knoll's application is "Tutoring ... Beyond the Academics," in which teachers provide individual and small-group tutoring at least twice weekly to students who are not meeting proficiency benchmarks, according to the district.
"In the three years since the program started, it has achieved impressive reductions in the achievement gap for minority students, students with disabilities, and students from low-socioeconomic families," the press release said.
The second program qualifying the school for the honor is based on the "growth mindset" concept developed by Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck, "in which students embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, and learn from coaching, criticism and mistakes," the press release said. "At the crux of the growth mindset is the belief — bolstered by research — that being 'smart' is the result of hard work, not genetics."
Laurel School highlighted its Language and Grammar Lab program, introduced in 2012 to address a 15 percent drop in the standardized English language arts test scores of English language learners between second and third grade. Significant results were seen after only one year of the program's implementation.
"We went from a 15 percent drop in test scores to a significant improvement," Principal Linda Creighton said in the press release. "These results were so motivating for our teachers, as well as our students."
The other signature practice detailed in Laurel's application is called Teacher Inquiry Cycles, which allowed staff members the time and support to develop the Language and Grammar Lab program, according to the district.
As part of being recognized in the Distinguished Schools program, representatives of both schools will mentor other educators wishing to establish programs modeled on those of the recognized schools, and details of the programs and practices will be included in a statewide database, Mr. Ghysels said.
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