After school on Monday, London Towne Elementary Principal Andy Camarda gathered his teachers together in the school library, treated them to a barbecue meal catered by Red Hot & Blue, and gave them all gold medals.
AND WITH good reason. He was honoring and thanking them because the school just received a gold award designation from Fairfax County Public Schools for significantly raising its test scores.
"What a terrific achievement — outstanding," said Cluster VIII Director Betsy Goodman, during the celebration. "Such growth in such a short time. It's the result of everyone in the building working together, and I'm proud of their achievement."
London Towne was one of 11 Project Excel schools earning awards for meeting schoolwide achievement index (SAI) goals set by the school system, based on students' scores on the 2003-04 Standards of Learning (SOL) tests. And it was one of nine schools receiving the highest-level gold award.
The SOL scores were from students in third, fourth, fifth and sixth grades. To be eligible for an award, Project Excel schools must raise their achievement on the SAI scale by at least three points, on average, across the four curricular areas assessed: English, math, history and science. Schools may also not have a decrease in a core area of more than one point.
And London Towne certainly filled the bill. Said Camarda: "Over the last two years, our test scores have gone up double digits in every subject — including a 21-point gain in science."
He said it's because of several factors. "Everybody has a common understanding of why we exist as a school, what our purpose is and what we hope to be as a great school," explained Camarda. "And we have a truly collaborative spirit where teachers are teaming together to do what it takes for kids."
Teachers tracked students' progress and responded when they saw children who weren't learning or discovered advanced students who needed more challenges. And also important was an overall commitment of the teachers toward the students.
"It's our goal to always be improving," said Camarda. "However, not only did we continually improve, but we significantly improved enough to win this designation."
BECAUSE EVERYONE at London Towne pitched in and helped earn the gold award, each staff member, teacher, custodian, secretary and instructional assistant receives a bonus from the school system. And the school receives additional funds for instructional supplies such as new books, technology and science materials.
Sixth-grade, special-education teacher Sue Williams has been at London Towne six years and was delighted with its latest honor. "I think this is great," she said. "I know a lot of hard work went into this from all grade levels, including ESOL and special-ed."
She attributed the academic leap to "a lot of practice time, incorporation of enrichment activities, plus spiraling back through the curriculum and giving students a double dose."
Also crucial, said Williams, was the connection with home — "good communication and strategies with the parents for enrichment at home, and their tremendous support." She also credited the availability of mentoring by teachers, parents and adults from the community with helping struggling students build their self-esteem.
Robert Goodwell, who's taught fifth- and sixth-graders at London Towne for seven years, said the gold award was the result of a total school effort. "I think it's fantastic," he said. "I couldn't be happier that the students are achieving at such a high level."
Special-ed teacher Carol Timpson, at the school for four years, agreed, saying teachers, students and administrators all worked really hard. Nathan Harvey, an instructional assistant for fourth and fifth grades, was equally thrilled.
"It's great — especially because last year we didn't get it because we were so far behind," he said. "We've come a really long way in the past couple of years. And last year, the teachers stayed after school doing a 'Homework Helper' project, providing extra help for the kids that needed it."
KINDERGARTEN TEACHER Wiatta Padmore has been at London Towne for 14 years and calls it a wonderful place to work and to learn. "The staff here is fabulous, the kids are out of this world and the teachers are awesome," she said. "It's really fun to work with kids and see them learning and growing, and we work very well together here as a team of teachers."
She said teachers at London Towne are concerned, most of all, that their students learn, and they do whatever's in the students' best interests to accomplish this goal. "I think, over the past few years, we've had consistent administration and consistent teachers, so we can really build on our strengths."
Padmore said this focus on students and their learning has also remained unchanged — "and that really made a difference for kids. We have a common goal and we all share the same vision for each student — to meet all the objectives we set forth for them."
Carol Jennings, a special-ed teacher at London Towne for the past three years, also praised Principal Camarda, saying that he, too, deserves a great deal of credit for the students' stellar achievements.
"It helped that Mr. Camarda has had a vision and a belief that we all could do this, and he never waivered from that belief," she said. "He had a commitment and was able to get everybody else excited about it."