By Parker Killenberg and Alex Opsahl
Thanks to high test scores and unique enrichment programs, Morningside Elementary, a Grady feeder school, was recognized as a 2016 National Blue Ribbon School for exemplary high performance.
Like other schools in the Grady cluster, Morningside’s student body has been growing in the past few years. At the beginning of the year the school was predicted to have 843 students, but 896 are currently enrolled.
“The Blue Ribbon Award helps to increase enrollment,” Principal Audrey Sofianos said. “When people want to come to the school, it is a good problem to have. It definitely helps the community, and it will continue to be a benefit to the school.”
The school is unique in its emphasis on “hands-on” learning.
“Our teachers have tremendous tools that are very unusual for public schools to have,” Sofianos said. “We have a lot of enriching activities like opera, performances, plays and garden lessons. We had to talk about our hands-on teaching method [for the application].”
Sofianos believes the school’s focus on literacy helped the school earn the award.
“By the end of June, 40 of our teachers will be completely Reading Series trained, which is a six-course, 70-hour experience learning about early literacy, phonics, reading comprehension, Latin and Greek roots and learning disabilities and dyslexia. Every teacher in the building goes through that.”
Morningside extends its literacy focus to kids who speak languages other than English. Since the 2015-2016 school year, Morningside has seen a 2 percent increase in the enrollment of English as a Second Language (ESOL) students. To assist ESOL students, Morningside worked with Grady students to create a tutoring program for them.
“We started Saturday School here where Grady kids come help teach kids at Morningside on Saturday mornings.” Sofianos said. “Two teachers were brought in to help with Grady seniors and juniors helping and completing their volunteer hours.”
Grady’s help with Morningside’s ESOL program reflects an overall trend of interschool collaboration across the Grady cluster. Morningside’s faculty works closely with other schools in the cluster. Cluster schools adopt teaching strategies from one-another, and the schools’ principals regularly have meetings together.
“If something is working at Mary Lin, then it’s something that Morningside wants to take a look at and vice-versa. We share ideas to find what works,” Sofianos said. “We feel very fortunate that we were selected for Blue Ribbon, and we know it’s going to happen with other schools [in the cluster], too.”
The National Blue Ribbon Schools Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, recognizes 330 schools annually for either high performance or achievement gap reduction. Morningside is the 14th Atlanta Public School school to receive the award since Blue Ribbon’s inception in 1982.
To apply for the Blue Ribbon, Sofianos worked with faculty members to compile an application that included student test scores, graduation rate, and Morningside’s enrichment programs.
“It was a very comprehensive application about every aspect of the school,” Sofianos said. “It represents the historic academic achievements, present academic achievement of Morningside, and a belief in the future going forward establishing ourselves as one of the best schools in the country. It was a combined effort of current students, past students, teachers, community.”
While Sofianos was instrumental in the application process, former Morningside principal Rebecca Pruitt led the school to its Blue Ribbon status and has left her impression on the high-performing school.
“Ms. Pruitt did a wonderful time here and left the school in such a great place to walk into.” Sofianos said. “We are working together with the team and improving upon what Ms. Pruitt had already built.”
To Sofianos, it was important to educate the Morningside students of the excellence that comes with being awarded the Blue Ribbon. Sofianos continues to remind students of the award and integrating the accolade into their academics.
“We have a little blue dolphin mascot that makes appearances around the school to remind students that they are great students and that we have some of the best teachers in the country,” Sofianos said. “Kindergartners and first graders wrote about blue ribbon scholarships and they had to say what they think it means to be a blue ribbon school. “