Swan Valley Eighth Graders
rate high on state-wide tests
(see table insert below)


by Suzanne Vernon
For the Pathfinder
February 19, 1998

Eighth-grade students tested two years ago at Swan Valley Elementary School rated above average in all subjects, according to statistics recently published by the state.

The scores were announced at a recent school board meeting, and came as no surprise to educators, who were quick to point out the many things that they feel are being done right at the rural school located south of Condon.

Words like cooperation, teamwork, communication and encouragement cropped up frequently during a recent interview with the school principal, Kitty Logan, and two veteran teachersShirley Webb, who teaches a combined 1st and 2nd-grade class, and Penny Thomas, who teaches 7th and 8th grade students.

"The staff and also the parents' support of education in this valley is outstanding," principal Kitty Logan said.
And, according to teachers, that support continues right on through from the community and the PTA, the school board, and the principal to the teachers and students.

"Kitty gives us freedom," Shirley Webb explained. "It really helps that she's a teacher, too."

Below are tabulated scores for comparison of how well Seeley area schools are doing. State-wide, scores at all grade levels covered a wide range. Note: The Seeley Fourth Grade math score is the highest in the state as well as in Northwest Montana. At the 11th Grade, Seeley Swan High School ranked higher than Missoula high schools, higher than Big Sky in reading, than Hellgate, Sentinel and Big Sky in language and math, than Sentinel and Big Sky in social studies and than Big Sky in science.

Reading Language Math Soc. Studies Science
State High 80.3 77.0 87.0 85.0 92.0
State Average 55.3 54.3 55.1 57.7 59.7
State Low 23.0 19.3 16.7 20.0 16.0
Seeley Elementary
Fourth Grade 72.0 68.0 87.0 85.0 85.0
Western Ranking 2nd 3rd 1st 1st 1st
Swan Valley
Fourth Grade 50.0 53.0 53.0 54.0 55.0
Western Ranking 65th 41st 47th 51st 54th
Reading Language Math Soc. Studies Science
State High 74.6 76.0 80.0 79.3 83.0
State Average 57.0 55.4 55.5 58.4 60.2
State Low 21.0 20.7 19.5 26.1 25.0
Seeley 8th 63.0 60.0 61.0 62.0 67.0
Western Ranking 13th 13th 12th 14th 8th
Swan Valley 8th 62.0 66.0 65.0 62.0 66.0
Western Ranking 17th 3rd 4th 13th 9th
Reading Language Math Soc. Studies Science
State High 72.3 73.4 93.0 87.5 82.0
State Average 56.3 54.7 57.1 58.0 60.1
State Low 12.0 22.0 20.0 17.3 12.0
SSHS 11th Grade 56 63 57 61 60
Western Ranking 19th 2nd 12th 6th 16th

Penny Thomas echoed Webb's observations. "We have a great team. Everybody works together really well," she said.
Thomas, whose 20-year teaching career started in an inner city school in Kentucky, applauds the support she receives from the community. "My first year in Kentucky, with 30 third graders, I only saw three parents all year. What a difference it is here."
Visit the school on any given day and you'll find parents or community volunteers helping with the education of their children.
"Everybody is so involved," Shirley Webb explained. "We are all pitching in for the school, not for ourselves. People are always doing a lot of extra things."

The small size of the school, which currently enrolls 80 students in grades Kindergarten through 8th, also helps teachers give more individual attention to students. For example, Thomas teaches pre-algebra to all of her middle school students, including special education students, adjusting the levels of difficulty for each individual. She even has one 5th grader in her pre-algebra class.

"Students here are encouraged to learn what they need to know," she said. "We are not limited by our curriculum."
Webb also believes in the importance of individual attention for each student. "We push kids to the limits, and try to challenge every one with different achievements and enrichment activities." In some cases, she said, students are given entire alternative projects to encourage them to learn new skills. "Kids here accept that, that they are individuals with different needs and talents," she explained.

In the primary grades, Webb invites adults to read stories to students as part of a "mystery reader" program. Sixth grade students also help the beginning readers. The beginning readers are encouraged to take books home and read them to their parents for extra credit and rewards at the class "store."

Webb concentrates on the basics, like reading and phonics, math and handwritingthings that she believes are "somewhat out of style right now." However, she and Thomas both point out that the "whole language movement" several years ago has had an impact on their teaching.

For Thomas, who said she was uncomfortable with some of the things advocated by "whole language" curriculums, admits that the movement helped her to be more flexible, even in math. "It allowed me to relax," she said, and made her think about offering more individualized programs.

Kitty Logan also noted that the whole language movement influenced teaching methods in other areas, as well. Most of the teachers at Swan Valley have received training in whole language programs. "We haven't taken it hook, line and sinker," Logan explained, "but we've taken what works here in the Swan Valley."

One thing that works is the accelerated reading program, a computer-aided reading program where students read novels, take tests on the computer, and progress at their own pace. The program ties the curriculum togethersocial studies, science, literature, and English. "The more we can make these connections, the better off we are," Logan said.

Several other teachers at the schoolVonnie deKort, Lee Eslick, Sue Ibsen, Spanish teacher, Janie O'Brien, and music teacher, Shirley Whitehave been applauded for their ability to "make connections" through developing unit studies and cross-curriculum programs. In addition, Jenny Rammell, the special education teacher, has been praised repeatedly for her work with after-school enrichment activities. Kindergarten teacher, Charlie Struna, involves parents in her projects every week. That kind of integration is a necessary ingredient to success, teachers say, because it promotes good, open communication between staff members, parents, and students. Even the aids and the janitors pitch in to help programs work.

"In a small school you share a lot. It's just constant. It sounds too good to be true, but it is," Shirley Webb explained. "We really look out for one another by helping each other."

The school board has been an encouragement to teachers, too. "This board seems to be very cooperative. It is just wonderful. They trust the teacher's judgment," Webb explained. Penny Thomas agreed, adding that the board's priority seems to be whether or not the kids are learning the things they should learn before they leave elementary school.

The school board has a tough job, to balance a budget that is expected to decrease because of declining enrollment, and still provide funding for teacher salaries, books and supplies.

Although the school has operated without a mill levy in recent years, donations from private groups such as the Ortenberg Foundation have allowed the school to keep up with teacher training programs and technology, and at the same time offer special programs, like music and Spanish, for all grades.

The school has never had a hot lunch program, (although the PTA provides twice-a-month "hot lunches") and field trips and extra-curricular sports (co-ed basketball and track) are kept at a minimum.

Kitty Logan, who teaches physical education to grades Kindergarten through 8th, believes that exercise is extremely important to the overall well-being of kids. However, she doesn't believe that sports should dominate an education program. The gymnasium, she says, stays busy, and continues to be open to public use. In addition to P.E. and music classes, community basketball programs are held in the gym four nights a week. The facility, along with classrooms at the school, is also rented to community groups for volleyball, adult education and YMCA programs.

All in all, the atmosphere at Swan Valley Elementary School is positive. Whether you attribute the high test scores to the books, the programs, the teachers or the parents, the smiles from the students tell the story: Parents and teachers are working hard to make sure that everyone believes all of the children here are above average.

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