HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - On the day students celebrated the birth of the civil rights leader who lends his name to their school, Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary in Huntsville received a prestigious statewide honor.
Friday administrators from the Huntsville City School Board congratulated students, faculty and staff at MLK for their distinction as a 'Banner School' for efforts and achievements in 2013.
"Well, we got good news today," started Huntsville City School Superintendent Casey Wardynski in front of an assembly of MLK staff and students ranging from pre-K to fifth grade.
"You guys have been doing a lot of hard work - you've put in a lot of effort and people are noticing it and those people are all over our state."
The 'Banner School' distinction was bestowed by the Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools or CLAS, a group made up of school and school system administrators from all over the state.
125 schools statewide were recommended to receive the banner school honor. MLK Elementary is one of 10 Alabama schools to receive the honor.
"So guess what you are now? You're a model for the whole state," Wardynski told students and staff.
The distinction comes despite the fact that MLK is listed as a 'failing school' under the parameters of the Alabama Accountability Act. Those parameters stipulate a school is considered 'failing' if students have not meet adequate yearly progress, or AYP requirements 3 years out of the last 6.
"What you're accomplishing here, today - not 3 years ago, today - shows what an excellent set of students you are and what an excellent school this is," said Wardynski.
Below are slides form a school board presentation Dr. Wardynski made last summer.
Principal Jennifer Douthit, who has led MLK for 3 years, explains the data used for her school's 'failing' classification is 6 years old.
"Those students are no longer in this school, there have just been so many positive changes that have been made since then, so it's based on things that happened years ago."
So, is it a daily challenge to overcome the stigma of 'failing' classification and its effects on overall school and staff morale?
"At first, sure it is," admits Principal Douthit, "You really have to focus on the positive and you want to focus on the progress that's being made, but as time goes on it's not something we can really focus on or think about. We have too many things to do during the day and there are too many wonderful things happening that we don't even think of our school as a failing school."
At a news conference held on the day the failing schools list was announced last June, Dr. Tommy Bice, Alabama Superintendent of Education, said it is important to look at the numbers on the list next to some of the schools. He said some, including Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary in Huntsville, have shown real progress in the last six years.
“They’ve shown the improvement you can make when the right resources are in place,” said Dr. Bice.
A school is listed as failing if it falls in the bottom six percent of schools in the state, and MLK was not on the failing list the last two years. In fact, its numbers show a 34% increase in student achievement over the last six years. However, because it did fall in the bottom six percent for the 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 school years, it made the failing list.
Principal Douthit says Friday's banner school honor is a huge step in shaking the failing school stigma.
"It is just recognition and acknowledgment that we are doing what we need to do here as a school; that we are a successful school, that we are worthy of an award and it's just a boost to everyone - it's a boost to the students and the teachers and I know it's going to be a boost to the parents, too."
Toward the conclusion of the program, Casey Wardynski invited a fifth grader to come to the podium and help read this message sent by State Superintendent Tommy Bice to students and staff following Friday's announcement:
"I have been made aware that MLK, Jr. Elementary School in Huntsville is receiving a well-deserved and hard-earned recognition this morning from CLAS. To the students, parents, teachers and leaders I just want to convey how proud I am of your accomplishments."