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Vickroy: Olympia Fields school shows all kids can be high achievers

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Updated: November 23, 2013 6:23AM



Ramon Florez, 7, worked diligently on his Pablo Picasso-inspired art assignment at Arcadia Elementary School Monday morning, oblivious to the excitement that was building among faculty members.

Later this week, Arcadia, where 70 percent of the children qualify for free lunch, will become one of four schools nationwide this year and the first in Illinois to be honored with the “Dispelling the Myth” award by The Education Trust, an independent, non-profit group dedicated to proving children can become high achievers, regardless of their socioeconomic standing.

From 2005 to 2011, Arcadia’s ISAT scores have consistently ranked in the top 10 percent of all Illinois schools, already earning the Matteson District 162 school a U.S. Office of Education Blue Ribbon.

It will be honored again for the high achievements of all of its students in reading and math when Principal Patricia Ransford and three colleagues of the Olympia Fields school travel to Baltimore Thursday to participate in The Education Trust’s annual national conference, “Ordinary People, Extraordinary Results: Working Together to Raise Achievement and Close Gaps.”

At the conference, Ransford, along with third-grade teacher Marcia Reitz, first-grade teacher Jean McBride and media specialist Sharon Cruikshank, will share their school’s strategies for success with some 600 other U.S. classroom educators, leaders, advocates and policymakers.

“It’s very exciting,” Ransford said, as she scurried about the office on this chilly morning. Her pre-bell duties included welcoming a substitute physical education teacher, chatting for a minute with music teacher Laurie Ulrich and preparing to lead the entire school in song on the playground — her typical start to the school day.

“It’s quite busy around here,” she said. “We’ve got the first graders going on a rescheduled field trip — it rained Friday. We’ve got fire department people here to demonstrate fire safety and, thank goodness, here comes Janis Jones.”

Jones, of Matteson, is among the many parent volunteers who visit the K-3 school daily to help children with reading, math and whatever else they need. A retired Chicago Public Schools teacher, Jones said parental, or in this case grandparental, involvement is tantamount to a child’s success.

“Involvement makes a big difference,” she said. “And there is a lot of it in this school.”

Collectively, volunteers logged more than 5,000 hours last year at Arcadia. That dedication, Ransford said, coupled with a staff that works tirelessly to find a way to reach each and every child, has made Arcadia a consistent success.

District 162 Supt. Blondean Davis attributes Arcadia’s success to an extraordinary faculty and staff who continue to rally behind an energetic and experienced principal; consistent collaboration with parents and the community; and a creative learning environment.

Ransford, who grew up in Park Forest and has been at the school’s helm for 16 years, is big on communication. She holds lots of meetings with faculty, sometimes before school starts, sometimes during lunch. She even had listening and speaking skills incorporated into the school’s curriculum before it became a common core standard.

She attributes the school’s success to several things: a clear understanding of the expectations as well as lots of planning, brainstorming and teaming up to problem-solve.

“We have very talented teachers,” she said. “We have very dedicated parents. And our students work very hard.”

But parents will tell you there’s something more, something special about Arcadia, something that Ransford instills in every person who walks through the door.

“A sense of family,” said La’Dweena Smith, a Park Forest mom and president of the Parent Teacher Organization at both Arcadia and Indiana schools. “Every person who comes here feels welcome.”

And that warmth is what keeps them coming back, Smith said, even though many, like Smith, have jobs, too.

In addition to free lunch, many students show up early for free breakfast.

“We don’t look at that,” Ransford said. “We just take each child as they are. We don’t judge. We just provide each child with what they need.”

If there is a problem with a student’s performance, she said, they call home and enlist the parent’s aid in solving it. If a parent in unavailable to help with homework, they ask a volunteer to do it.

“We’re very determined that our kids succeed,” she said.

And the students are just as determined. During a tour of the building, one boy ran up to Ransford to tell her he’d earned inclusion into the school’s Scholars and Leaders program.

Every morning after breakfast, all students line up outside to sing the school song, “Do the Good You Know,” led by Ransford, and to recite a poem reminding them to work hard and strive to do the best they can.

In addition to giving children a solid understanding of fundamentals, Ransford said, they teach them how to help themselves.

“We expose them to every strategy so that if one doesn’t work for them, they have others,” she said.

The added blessing is that children not only come away with a solid foundation in reading and math, they also feel empowered. And that, Ransford said, endears them to the idea of lifelong learning.

Ransford admits that Arcadia did not land in the top 10 percent on this year’s annual school report card, not now that the standards have been revived. Most schools have seen their ranking diminished as a result.

“But we are at the top,” she said.

The Education Trust annually cites four U.S. schools whose students have overcome the demographics of their community and achieved results that place them near the top of their states. The other schools being honored this year are Dr. Carlos J. Finlay Elementary School, Miami; Chadwick Elementary School, Baltimore; and Pass Christian High School, Pass Christian, Miss.



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