If students from small schools suffer academically, someone forgot to tell Salem and Melbourne.
For the second year in a row, the Salem and Melbourne school districts each received a Golden Apple Award for being among the top 10 school districts in the state, based on student performance on state-mandated tests.
And Salem (enrollment 736) and Melbourne (870) were not alone among high achieving small schools. Five of the top 10 districts are Class AA, the state's second smallest enrollment classification (the largest school districts are in Class AAAAA, the smallest in Class A).
What does this say about small schools? "It says we can compete," said Salem superintendent Ken Rich.
He added, "It's very exciting for our whole staff, student body and community. It confirms that the work we're doing is paying off."
But the magnitude of the achievement still astounds Rich. "I don't think we can really comprehend how good that is," Rich told an assembly of high school students who gathered in the gymnasium Nov. 3 to watch a recording of the television broadcast of the Golden Apple awards presentation, which was filmed at the Governor's Mansion in Little Rock Nov. 1.
Salem moved up two slots from last year to number 3, beating out not only every other Class AA school in the state, but every Class AAAA and Class A school as well.
He said the ranking puts Salem in the top 1 percent of school districts.
The awards were based on student scores on the Benchmark exams, given to all students in grades 4, 6 and 8, as well as end-of-course exams given to high school students in algebra, geometry and literacy. The tests are given in all 254 school districts in the state.
Valley View School District (AAA) in Jonesboro ranked first for the second consecutive year, and Bentonville School District (AAAAA) ranked second.
Rounding out the top 10 were Greenwood in fourth place, followed by Parker's Chapel, Fayetteville, Melbourne, Valley Springs, Searcy and Bergman.
Salem was cited for its strong mathematics emphasis. The district uses the Saxon Math curriculum in kindergarten through sixth grade, along with supplemental materials for reinforcement of skills, as well an ensuring students cover the Arkansas frameworks (statewide skill objectives for each grade level) for mathematics. The rigorous Saxon curriculum has been used with considerable success for years by private schools and is now beginning to make its way into public schools.
The award presenter praised Salem for the strong participation of parents in the district, specifically mentioning the high percentage who attended the recent parent/teacher conferences following the first grading period. Rich said parents of 97 percent of Salem Elementary students attended, as did parents of 60 percent of high school students.
Rich said this was both a cause and effect of student achievement: students achieve because parents are involved, and parents are involved because of the the school's success.
He added, "We had over 100 people show up Tuesday night to watch the (award presentation) broadcast over the Internet by Web-cast." Rich accepted the award at the presentation, accompanied by other Salem administrators and faculty, and two students, senior Tabitha Hall and sophomore Jessica Foster, the two Salem students with the highest scores on the end-of-course exams.
The Benchmarks and end-of-course exams are not the only measure of student achievement at Salem. He said the district's average ACT score is not only much higher than the Arkansas average, which trails most other states, it is 2 points higher than the national average.
The district also offers 18 hours of college credit courses to its high school seniors through Ozarka College.
"One of the reasons we are successful is we have a daily focus on student achievement," he said.
Rich acknowledges the special challenges of small districts, especially the difficulty providing upper level courses in high school. But the school's new distance learning lab may provide the remedy, he said.
With the lab the school is able to offer classes with instructors at colleges or other high schools in the state. Using Web cams, students are able to see and hear the instructor in real time on the screen in front of the room, and the instructor can see and hear them. The potential is limitless for providing instruction that would not be economically feasible with a teacher in the classroom, Rich said.
Salem elementary students were rewarded for their performance with an assembly Nov. 2, followed by extra recess. And after the high school assembly Nov. 3, students were given free popcorn and sodas from the concession stand.
Gerald Cooper, superintendent of the Melbourne School District, said the district succeeds by "concentrating on basics."
He explained, "There's no substitute for time on task. There are so many distractions, things that are pulling teachers away from actually teaching -- external things like reports and meetings."
Cooper added, "We try to minimize distractions and maximize instruction -- I guess you could that's our guiding philosophy."
The scores this year include some 320 students from the former Mt. Pleasant School District, students whose scores were not included in Melbourne's 2004 Golden Apple.
Melbourne annexed Mt. Pleasant July 1, 2004, as part of the state's mandatory consolidation of all school district's with enrollment less than 500. The combined enrollment of the district is 870, Cooper said.
"Traditionally, Mt. Pleasant and Melbourne have both done well on test scores," the superintendent said. He said 70 percent of the Golden Apple winners were from smaller districts (including AAA schools). "It just confirms what I've known all along; we are doing a good job providing an education."
He agreed that successful school districts need strong community support. Proof of that support in Melbourne, he said, was the September elections in which voters, by a margin of almost 2-1, approved a millage increase from 30.35 to 39.3.
"Obviously if you can get a 9-mill tax to pass in the community, they're supportive of the district," he said.
The millage allows the district to issue $6.8 million in bonds for a new $7.5 million high school, projected to open in 2007. Bids for the construction are expected to be let in January or February 2006.
The district is applying for reimbursement from the state based on a revised "wealth index" which, if approved, would return $1.5 to $2 million to the district and allow the district to go back to the voters -- this time to reduce the millage an estimated 2-3 mill, Cooper said.
Cooper said Melbourne also offers a full range of upper level courses, exceeding the state standards. Among the upper level courses are calculus, trigonometry and physics, advanced placement classes in social studies, and honors math and science. The district also offers concurrent college courses through Ozarka.
Melbourne also has a new distance learning lab, which Cooper said allows the district to provide additional courses at a low cost.
"With this technology, there's no reason for small school districts not to have the same instruction as larger districts," he said.
The Golden Apple Award was the brainchild of Craig O'Neill of television station KTHV Channel 11 in Little Rock, which cosponsors the awards with the Arkansas Department of Education. This is the second year of the awards program.