Wildflower School Principal Dr. Araceli Montoya is proud of the recognition her school has received for furthering its students’ education.
The Goodyear school was recently honored with The National Institute for Excellence in Teaching’s (NIET) Founder’s Award, through which it was also bestowed $50,000.
“For us to be designated out of thousands of schools nationally for the growth that we’ve had and the work that we’ve been able to do, I think that was super special for us. Especially for the state of Arizona,” Montoya said.
“We don’t always get the best press, especially in public education, unfortunately. So I think this, for us, goes beyond Wildflower, but it really shows what we’re able to do in public education and in our small community and to represent Arizona in this way.”
Runners-up were Desert View Elementary in Gadsden Elementary School District No. 32, Arizona; Alice M. Harte Charter School in InspireNOLA, Louisiana; Cross County Elementary Technology Academy in Cross County School District, Arkansas; and Dodson Branch School in Jackson County Schools, Tennessee. All finalists, including Wildflower, received an additional $10,000.
Officials said the five finalists were selected based on their efforts to make instructional excellence the cornerstone of school improvement; plan for regular professional learning focused on daily needs of teachers and students; create a culture of collaboration and reflection, and create leadership teams made of teacher leaders and administrators.
Ultimately, one school that exemplifies NIET’s principles – educator excellence and opportunities for student success – bests the others.
And according to NIET Chairman and TAP founder Lowell Milken, Wildflower earned that honor.
“Wildflower School’s commitment to educational excellence and to cultivating the knowledge, skills and experiences that prepare young people for a productive future makes it a worthy recipient of the 2019 NIET Founder’s Award,” Milken said.
“Research and personal experience tell us that investing in people makes a difference. This belief is at the heart of NIET’s work over the past two decades and is carried out in Wildflower’s classrooms every day.”
Wildflower has worked with NIET for the past eight years, during which it “has put a greater focus on data-driven decision-making, opened doors to innovation, and worked as a team to reinforce strengths and address areas of need,” officials said.
NIET helps “schools create formal structures for teacher leadership; regular, job-embedded professional learning; and a system for educator support, observation and feedback tied to high expectations and real-time needs of teachers and students.”
A big part of why Wildflower was selected, as elaborated by Ana Gutierrez, the school’s dean of students, is the progression and achievement of students, as well as how the school implements practices to further students’ education. One of the most important elements, she said, boils down to the very teachers the school employs.
“Parents want exceptional teachers,” Gutierrez explained. “They don’t want computers; they don’t want technology. Those are all the things that are kind of in addition to … I would say that every single one of our educators on this campus is exceptional to the degree that you see the data there, and that’s proven by our academic achievement, just the sense of community.”
NIET CEO Dr. Candice McQueen echoed that sentiment.
“Great teachers and leaders can transform student learning, and Wildflower’s educators are an example to us about what’s possible,” McQueen said. “Their students’ success is a tribute to the years of hard work that educators have put into growing and improving every single day.”
That growth and those improvements are apparent.
According to the Avondale Elementary School District, Wildflower ranked third in the state for total K-8 growth points in 2017. More recently, however, Wildflower students’ English proficiency has increased from 40% to more than 50% over the most recent two school years (between 2016-17 and 2017-18), with math proficiency increasing from 39% to 61%.
“We really take ownership in knowing that and really holding ourselves accountable for (individual student) growth,” Gutierrez explained of the steps the school has taken. “We don’t expect proficiency, but we expect an accelerated growth. And that’s what we’ve seen from our kids and that’s why our teacher value added is at that higher level.”
Traditionally, Montoya said, students are expected to grow at one year’s pace. But at Wildflower, students improve at a faster rate – approximately a year and a half between each grade level.
And, again, it goes back to the teachers.
“I think we utilize that system of support and that system of school improvement to really help support our teachers,” Gutierrez explained. “So when we have early release Wednesdays, we have work in better professional development there for teachers. And we have really focused on giving our … teachers the professional development that would help their kids.”
The Montoya-helmed school has a leadership team comprised of master and mentor teachers as well as administrators, together who make decisions regarding the school, officials said.
In effect, the school has created a culture of achievement – one where students understand what is expected of them, so they put their best feet forth. And while Montoya and Gutierrez were quick to admit growth on a numerical scale took much effort, the school’s culture for success – dubbed the “Wildflower Way” – developed more organically.
Funded by the Lowell Milken Family Foundation, decisions haven’t been made by Wildflower staff as to where the $50,000 cash prize (and supplementary $10,000 for first being a finalist) will be used. But superficial conversations, as Montoya explained, are considering a scholarship as well as teacher development.
“Those are two things that we’re looking at,” she said. “And then we want to get the staff also involved a little bit more into like what that might look like.”
But while Wildflower officials have proven their hard work – by fostering the “Wildflower Way,” developing teachers, improving student achievement on a numerical scale, and in turn receiving the Founder’s Award and $60,000, there is always room for improvement.
So said Montoya.
“Our next step for us is to truly designate Wildflower as an accelerated academy,” Montoya explained.
To do so, the school has to fall in line with an accelerated model, and then it will be renamed Wildflower Accelerated Academy.
“That’s where we want to go next,” Montoya said, adding that the steps are already being taken. “We’re really blessed in that the staff was 100% on board, and over 90% of the parents are on board as well, from who we surveyed.”