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Sunday, October 1, 2023

Two Central Pa. schools win prestigious Blue Ribbon education award

Hampden Elementary School principal Todd Franze has been holding onto a big secret for nearly a year. On Tuesday – in front of the entire student body – he finally got to let it out.

The school, Franze and other Cumberland Valley School District officials announced Tuesday, has been named a National Blue Ribbon School, which, along with Elizabethtown Area High School in Lancaster County, are two of just 353 schools nationwide to earn the highly-selective designation in the 2023 round, according to the federal Department of Education, which issues the award.

“Once we get that banner up in our lobby, that’s not going away for a long time. That’s going to be our legacy,” Franze told staff and students at an assembly Tuesday.

The school – located in Hampden Township and one of eight CVSD elementary schools – was notified in fall 2022 that it qualified for the Blue Ribbon designation based on high scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) standardized tests, according to Franze and CVSD Superintendent David Christopher. The school then went through a lengthy application process, highlighting programs it had implemented to achieve its scores.

Blue Ribbon designations come in two forms – those for schools that have closed achievement gaps, and those that have high achievement overall. Hampden Elementary was awarded based on the latter, Franze and Christopher said, although the education department still collects multiple years of test results to ensure that schools aren’t letting students fall through the cracks.

“The work that you do in the classroom on those PSSAs, we are out-achieving the other schools across the nation. We are rocking the PSSAs,” Franze said in explaining the award to students.

But Franze and other school staff stressed that it wasn’t just a matter of drilling PSSA materials into students heads – the high scores, they said, were largely the result of a strong school culture that fosters learning.

“I love the high PSSA scores, but what makes me as your principal and the staff around you proud are the following things,” Franze told students, listing traits such as being kind, responsible, and courteous.

With approximately 550 students, Hampden Elementary is located in one of the fastest-growing areas of Pennsylvania, with CVSD regularly clocking in as one of the state’s most rapidly expanding.

Growing property values have given the district financial resources, and Hampden Elementary’s portion of lower-income students by state and federal reporting standards – about 27% – is lower than the state average for public schools of around 49%.

But this growth also presents unique challenges, particularly when it comes to helping students who may have limited English skills. Hampden Elementary, and CVSD as a whole, is rapidly diversifying, with Asian students now making up 27% of the elementary school’s student body. Over 11% of Hampden Elementary’s students are classified as English Language Learners; of at least 18 languages used by students, over half are from the Indian subcontinent, according to information provided by the district.

“It’s numerous different cultures within our classrooms. The children are very welcoming, and they just make friends with each other,” even with students who have limited English skills, said Hampden Elementary kindergarten teacher Stacy Hart.

“Social and emotional growth has a lot to do with it,” Hart said of the school’s high test scores. “It’s about creating a learning community where children feel comfortable.”

Even when preparing for standardized tests, students said their teachers worked hard to make sure they were never bored.

“We always do a game or something to help us understand,” said fifth-grader Hannah Werts.

Werts also said she liked how everyone was included – Hampden Elementary has, for instance, put “buddy benches” on the playground to encourage students to hang out with those who might not have as many friends, Werts said.

“If you come here, you never feel left out,” agreed fellow fifth-grader Gabe Prough.

Another central Pa. school, Elizabethtown Area High School in Lancaster County, was among the awardees. The suburban school enrolls about 1,300 students.

“We are thrilled. I’m so proud of our faculty, our staff, and our administrators. The last couple of years since COVID have been really challenging for public education. It’s just an honor,” said Karen Nell, superintendent.

Calling teachers rockstars, Nell added it’s nice to see them recognized for such a well-deserved honor.

“It’s very humbling to watch the work they do and I’m just so proud of our team,” she said.

The school’s demographic breakdown is 85% white, 7% Hispanic, 3% Asian and 3% Black. “We really strive to create an environment where all of our students feel welcome,” Nell said.

The high school’s mission statement centers on promoting 21st-century skills such as collaboration, creativity, communication, and critical thinking.  The district’s “Our Life Ready Model” is an approach to education that aligns academic offerings with personalized and career-specific learning opportunities. Nell said the school aims to teach students to be ready for the world after high school.

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