She is buttoned-down and crisp and all attention to detail. She sees a challenge and faces it head on. She is a commanding principal, but certainly a loving one too. She is firm and caring, and the students at Gardner Elementary know that her expectations are set high.
From head to toe, it’s easy to see that she’s well put together. Not a hair out of place, not a scuff on her dressy silver heels. In a place where spills are frequent and clothes are stained, Tate’s suit is neatly tailored, her nails painted a fresh coat of ruby red.
As the principal of Gardner for eight years, she’s the leader whose presence dominates a room.
When she reads a book to a group of students in the library, there are no distracted glances or fidgety movements. Each pair of eyes is focused on her, her words, the book she has in her hands and the expression on her face. She is the center of attention, and for those five minutes they take in each new sentence she speaks.
A visit from Tate is special enough for one third-grader to slip out of his classroom just to get a hug from his favorite principal.
“I love being around the kids,” she says, and it’s obvious that they love being around her too.
At each step of her career, Tate has been singled out for her excellence in education. During her 17-year elementary school teacher in the Salina, Auburn-Washburn and Shawnee Mission districts, she was selected as a Master Teacher of the Year.
In 2005, as an assistant principal at Wheatridge Middle School, she was selected as Kansas District 1 Assistant Principal of the Year by the Kansas Association of Secondary School Principals.
And last year, Tate was honored as the 2012 Kansas Distinguished Principal by the National Distinguished Principal program through the Kansas Association of Elementary School Principals. She will travel to Washington, D.C., this month where she will be recognized at a formal event.
“I consider myself a lead-learner so I’m learning along with everyone else, the teachers and the students,” Tate said. “When I learn, I try to model and teach others, but I learn just as much from the children and the staff as I learn on my own. I think if you’re an educator of any kind, you’re a learner first and an educator second.”
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Tucked in the southwest corner of Johnson County, the city of Gardner has a small-town feel with a school district that rivals the big.
To be sure, Gardner Edgerton School District is a small one. With about 5,450 students, it is about a fifth the size of Olathe, the county’s largest district. It has only one high school, two middle schools and six elementary schools.
But don’t let its small stature fool you. Gardner Edgerton is a force all its own.
Gardner Edgerton has consistently been lauded for achievement — through its award-winning educators, like Tate, and the performance of its students.
Gardner Edgerton High School Principal Tim Brady says the district is Johnson County’s “best-kept secret.”
“I would call it a sleeping giant,” he said.
Of its nine schools, all have received the Kansas Standard of Excellence every year since the criteria’s inception.
Eight of the nine schools in the district have received the Governor’s Achievement Award. Since 2006, Gardner Edgerton has received the distinction 14 times.
This year, the high school’s ACT composite score of 23.2 outperformed the state’s average of 21.9 and the national average of 21.1. The score ranks fourth in Johnson County, and first among the county’s three rural districts.
U.S. News & World Report also ranked Gardner Edgerton High School No. 8 among 351 public, charter and magnet schools in Kansas. The high school was No. 1,798 out of 22,000 high schools nationwide. Only four Johnson County high schools were ahead of it: Blue Valley North, Blue Valley Northwest, Blue Valley High School and Shawnee Mission South.
Last year, Sunflower Elementary was named a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education, one of the highest academic honors given to an educational institution.
The district’s leaders say the high expectation on student achievement starts with quality leadership at each school.
“We are very focused on excellence and high achievement and we have created a culture that embraces that here,” Superintendent Bill Gilhaus said. “We place a high value on quality staff.”
Like every district, Gardner Edgerton faces challenges. State funding has decreased and yet the district is growing.
“There’s less funding, and there’s less resources because of that,” district spokeswoman Leann Northway said. “If the finances are available, it makes everything much easier. Every district has unique challenges; we have growth.”
It helps that the Gardner district has received strong support from the community. In January, Gardner Edgerton voters passed a $72.7 million bond issue for the building of a new elementary and a new middle school and renovations to other schools.
“The community has been very supportive of our schools,” Gilhaus said. “This will be the fifth bond issue that’s passed in the past 25 years.”
The district will use $8 million of the bond to build a multi-purpose activity center as well as $2 million to improve the high school sports complex. Technology also will be updated with $6 million.
“I’ve been here 31 years, I’ve never seen a bond issue fail,” Brady said. “I think it’s because our parents see that we have quality schools and they want that history and tradition to continue.”
Herself a graduate of Gardner Edgerton High School, Mary Nelson moved back to Gardner to raise her children in the school district.
“There’s still an aspect of it that’s small-town,” said Nelson, who is the president of the high school’s site council, a group of parents and community members who meet with Brady about four to five times a year to give feedback.
“The school itself, it’s a great educational experience for the kids. The educators are very good educators.”
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Especially noteworthy is the Gardner Edgerton district’s achievement in its poorer schools.
Fully three of it six elementary schools and one middle school are considered impoverished — a majority of its students receive free or reduced-priced lunch. Those schools are labeled Title 1 for the federal funds they receive to help educate poorer students.
Tate’s Gardner Elementary School is one of the district’s Title 1 schools. It has been recognized with the Governor’s Achievement Award in 2008, 2009 and 2010. In 2011, 100 percent of its students met the state standard in math, reading and science.
Along with Edgerton Elementary, Gardner Elementary was recognized as a Kansas Title 1 Reward School from the State Department of Education this year. The award recognizes the top 10 percent of Title 1 schools based on high academic progress or high academic performance.
With 54 percent of Gardner Elementary’s students on free and reduced lunch, each day presents an opportunity to identify children’s needs and make sure they’re getting the attention they deserve, Tate said.
“We take the kids where they are and try to take them as far as we can take them in a year, and then we start right where we left off the next year,” Tate said. “Everybody gets the same support here, whether you come from an affluent family or not.”
Part of the reason Gardner has seen success is its strategy to split children up in smaller groups for part of each school day for more effective learning. The kids are grouped based on their skill levels, and each group gets a teacher designated for their level. The more focused a teacher can be on an individual child, the better chance he or she has of overcoming any learning hurdles, Tate said.
“We just do what needs to be done, whatever it takes,” Tate said. “I have a very young staff, they are very good at collaborating, they have wonderful ideas, they work very hard, they think of the children first.”
As the president of Gardner Elementary’s parent-teacher organization, Monica Brown has seen the effects of Tate’s leadership firsthand at a school where many students are at a disadvantage.
“We have homes that we have parents working two jobs and don’t have enough time,” Brown said. “She’ll look into a behavior and look into what’s causing it, and she encourages her staff to care about them more than at an academic level.”
Tate has teamed up with the parent-teacher organization to create activities to involve those students, such as roller skating and P.E.
“Some of those kids have never put roller skates on,” Brown said.
Another challenge that comes with the Title 1 designation is identifying the needs of students who are just now learning English. With two English Language Learners teachers on staff, Gardner has been able to help those students with specific tutoring techniques and classes.
There’s a before school program that begins on day one of classes, where English Language Learners students can get help from teachers Jenny Becker and Angela Bowman.
In the second and third quarter of the school year, Bowman will offer third- and fourth-graders after-school help too, even if they are not English learners.
“My favorite part of being an ELL teacher is the relationships I have with them,” Becker said. “Watching them grow, we become really close, which makes them feel more comfortable. It creates a safe environment that helps them grow and reach their potential.”
For the parents, Becker offers an after-school program once a week to help with their English. The parents also are provided with language supports and interpreters at school events and parent-teacher conferences.
“We just try to build those bridges with those families,” Becker said.
For Tate, it’s that support that has led to her success and honors, such as the principal of the year award.
“It’s always nice to be recognized, but that honor really recognizes what everybody in this learning community has accomplished, not what I have accomplished,” Tate said. “While it’s very nice to be honored and recognized, it’s humbling too. Because I know that I couldn’t have had the results or we couldn’t have had the results that we’ve had without everybody working together as a team.”
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One of the first things you might notice about Sunflower Elementary Principal Dustin Mortenson is his laugh. It’s loud, hearty and distinct, an instantly recognizable sound with a burst of energy.
You might also notice that he’s a high-fiver, an encourager and a kid at heart. He’ll be the first to jump in line with the early childhood development class on the kids’ way outside, standing patiently as a giant among toddlers eager to swing, run and climb.
He’ll join the third-graders at their desks, sitting on his own exercise ball like the little learners as they practice vocabulary words for the week. (He gives his teachers freedom to run their own classrooms; this teacher uses exercise balls instead of chairs and has kids write vocabulary words on their desks with dry-erase markers.)
He’s been known to stop by classrooms to read the kids a book. He’ll make an appearance at recess to show off his kickball skills. He’ll take a small seat in the lunchroom alongside the kids with packed lunches and cafeteria trays.
Because to Mortenson, it’s simple:
“It’s not rocket science, it’s just an effort to hang out with them,” he said. “You don’t have to be the best tactician in the classroom and have the fanciest everything. … It doesn’t matter what abilities a kid has, they all can figure out if you want to be with them.”
At 34, Mortenson is fairly young for his leadership position. After graduating from the University of Kansas, Mortenson began teaching eighth-grade American history and then went on to become assistant principal of Wheatridge Middle School in Gardner. Three years later, he took the top job at Sunflower. This is his fifth year.
He does crossing guard duty every morning, greeting each parent who drops off their child, learning about the families and building relationships as he goes. Because in a time where resources can be cut back, building relationships is important.
“We have a lot of families that are very engaged and we have a lot of staff members who bring their kids here, so it rounds our corners,” he said. “When you have 93 fathers who spend at least one day a school year volunteering, when you have moms who come in and help with guided reading groups on a regular basis, when you have teachers who at lunch go eat with their kid… it just rounds your corners and you’re just a softer place. It takes the institution out of it.”
A parent painted a wall map of the United States, where kids can identify different states and their capitals. In the Eagle’s Nest where two students broadcast the morning announcements, a piece of plywood resembling a giant nest, also a parent creation, covers the outside of a desk.
It’s these gestures that allow the parents, teachers and administrators to come together for the kids.
“At school, they are a family and all of the staff there leads by example,” said Nikki McClure, who has two children at Sunflower and also volunteers at the school each week.
“They have wonderful traditions and an open communication between the teachers and the parents,” she said. “It makes things go smoothly.”
But Sunflower is not only successful in building relationships, as evidenced by the National Blue Ribbon designation it received last year. Sunflower was the first school to receive the award in the school district’s history.
“The positive energy that that brought to our community was really neat,” Mortenson said. “So then people were more likely to say ‘hey, thank you.’ When you say thank you to us, that gives us more energy, so then we do more.”
Sunflower also received the Governor’s Achievement Award in 2010 and 2011, which recognizes schools that meet the Standard of Excellence in both reading and math, have an average attendance of 90 percent or higher, and rank in the top 5 percent of schools in the state for reading and math.
In 2012, 100 percent of fourth-grade students at Sunflower Elementary met the state standard in reading, and 100 percent of third- and fourth-graders met the state standard in math.
The school continues to evolve, still trying to figure out new ways to keep the kids engaged and excited to learn.
Last spring, Sunflower put a 220-gallon saltwater fish tank in the entryway. It’s a $15,000 to $20,000 set-up, but it has cost the school less than $5,000, almost all privately raised.
“The picture is a 220-gallon box of glass with fish swimming in it,” Mortenson said. “But in our little area, every day kids come in, they hover around it and they put their fingers all over it, sometimes kids are licking the glass, and their lips are on it. … Kids are asking questions about saltwater and fish.
“If that gives them a little more energy before they walk in class, well that’s a little more energy when learning how to read is hard for that kid, he’s got a little more energy to devote to that,” he said.
The fish tank is a learning tool — and it’s fun. To Mortenson, fun is key.
“We are very good at loving and laughing with kids so they learn,” he said. “We’re not the best teachers or the best administrators, we just have figured out those two pieces — that if you love on kids and you laugh with them, they’ll just listen to you.”
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Gardner Edgerton High School might be best known for sports.
The athletic powerhouse has remained competitive against bigger districts for years and has been the home of successful athletes like 2011 standout Bubba Starling. The former Trailblazer was a three-sport stunner, making a name for himself and the school in football, baseball and basketball. After graduating, the superstar turned down a football scholarship at Nebraska to join the Royals as the fifth overall pick in the Major League Baseball draft.
As a 6A high school with about 1,400 students, this is the third year the high school has competed in the Eastern Kansas League, one of the most competitive in the state. The high school faces all five Blue Valley high schools and two parochial schools but has had no problem holding its own.
The high school’s football team has been consistently successful, with four consecutive trips to the state semifinals and winning records each season. Last year, the girls track and field team finished third at state, and for the fifth straight year, a Gardner Edgerton High School pole vaulter took the title of state champion. The boys basketball team finished third in the league in 2012, and this year’s girls volleyball team is ranked No. 1 among 6A high schools.
Principal Tim Brady knows sports engages students, but it’s not the only way. About 75 percent of the student body is involved in extracurricular activities.
And at Gardner Edgerton High School, engagement is important.
“When kids are engaged and involved in activities, there’s fewer discipline problems, there are less attendance issues, and they perform better academically,” Brady said.
One program that has helped engage the high school students is RISE, which stands for Respecting Individual Students Everyday. In a society where bullying has become a common problem, RISE is committed to creating a culture where students on the periphery can feel noticed and accepted.
The program was the brainchild of its sponsor Courtney Franz, who approached Brady with the idea. He gave her the reins, and she joined with another teacher to recruit kids to volunteer.
Those students are trained to identify students who may not be as involved as others or may not have a large social circle. With small gestures, maybe a wave in the hallway or sitting by them at lunch, the RISE students show those teens that they care.
“They come to school every day, they don’t bring any unnecessary attention to themselves, but they’re not necessarily connected,” Brady said. “We want to make sure they feel comfortable here, and that they know they’ve always got someone to talk to and connect with.”
There’s even a RISE banner where students can write positive comments about other kids. The RISE students make it a priority to write an encouraging comment about the less-involved kids. Last school year, the banner filled up so fast that a second was created.
Brady believes engagement leads to academic success too.
The high school outpaced the state averages in all areas with higher scores in English, math, reading and science. And the U.S. News & World Report ranking of No. 8 in Kansas was significant.
But for Brady, No. 8 isn’t good enough. In a district like Gardner, the bar is set high and the expectations even higher.
“I told our kids, eighth is pretty good, but we’re aiming for Number 1,” he said. “We want to be the top school in the state of Kansas.”
To reach Melissa Schupmann, send email to email@example.com.