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Rich Acres leads the way
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Rich Acres Elementary School Principal Elizabeth Fulcher stands in a hallway at the school, which continues to excel in academic achievement. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)

Monday, June 16, 2014

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

Rich Acres Elementary School has a track record of academic achievement that outpaces all other Henry County Schools.

And while school officials point to many things the school does well, they also say there are no clear-cut answers why Rich Acres has achieved at higher levels than other schools in the division. They said that all schools in the division are working hard to help students achieve, that the school division provides the same resources to schools, and that schools share ideas and techniques.

DeWitt House, HCPS assistant superintendent for teaching and instruction, said the best analogy he can give is this: “I invite you to my house for dinner, and you love a particular dish. I give you the recipe. You go home and make the dish and it doesn’t turn out. You have to put your own twist on it.”

At Rich Acres, the recipe works. Among its numerous accolades and honors were the school’s designation as a 2011 National Blue Ribbon School; a Distinguished Title I School in 2011-2013; 2008, 2009, 2012 (Virginia) Board of Education Excellence Award; 2010 (Virginia) Board of Education Competence to Excellence Award; 2011 Governor’s Award for Educational Excellence; 2013 and 2014 (Virginia) Board of Education Distinguished Achievement Award. (See related story.)

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Possible reasons officials mentioned for Rich Acres’ achievements included a turnaround in student achievement that began when it was a year-round school in the early 2000s, a culture of success and the family-like atmosphere that comes from being the smallest school in the county with 281 students.

Bill Bullins, HCPS assistant superintendent for operations and administrative services, was principal of Rich Acres from 1992 through 2007-08. He said the school is highly focused on instruction, has a lot of parental support for its goals and has high expectations of students.

The school does a good job of providing a lot of individual and small group instruction, he said. It has a strong after-school remediation program during the school year and a summer remediation program, he said.

But the culture at Rich Acres didn’t happen overnight, Bullins said.

House said the turnaround in student achievement began when Rich Acres was a year-round school. That occurred from 2000-01 to 2002-03.

Bullins, who was principal at the time, said, “It worked for us. It got us headed in the right direction.”

With the year-round school, the school year was spread over the whole calendar year, so students didn’t lose a lot of academic skills over the summer, Bullins said. During breaks, two-week intercessions were held to help struggling students catch up, he added.

Rich Acres eventually went back to a traditional school year because of budget issues and so that the calendar would coincide with other schools’ and cause less inconvenience for families with children in more than one school, Bullins said.

While he noted the many things Rich Acres does well, he added, “All schools (in the division) have good people on staff. All are working hard, trying to do everything they can to get students to where they need to be.”

“I don’t have a clear-cut answer on why other schools haven’t received as much success as Rich Acres,” Bullins said. Others agreed.

“All of our schools are working very hard. They just haven’t experienced the same level of success as Rich Acres,” House added.

He did note that over time, Rich Acres has established a culture of success, and “success breeds success.”

“It’s really ingrained in the culture. They just believe they are going to be at that level and they achieve,” House said.

“It’s a very humble group,” he said of the Rich Acres staff. “They like to deflect credit from themselves and give credit to students. A lot of schools are like that. It’s truly an amazing success story. ... It’s a tremendous group. They work hard.”

Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) data showed Rich Acres had a higher percentage of teachers with master’s degrees in 2010-11, 2011-12 and 2012-13 than HCPS and a higher percentage than the state for two of those three years. House said that may have contributed to the school’s success.

“Over time the entire faculty and staff have managed to put all the best practices into place,” including establishing a growth mindset, a focused curriculum and balanced assessment, among others, said Sandy Strayer, HCPS director of instruction.

Rich Acres has “an unwavering culture of high expectations,” HCPS Superintendent Jared Cotton has said. “All students are expected to achieve at high levels, and the teachers and staff at Rich Acres work tirelessly to provide the necessary support to help students succeed.”

Elizabeth Fulcher, the current principal, deflected credit. “I don’t think any of this is my doing,” she said, adding she feels her job is to maintain Rich Acres’ success.

“Rich Acres began their journey of creating a culture of success years ago under principal Mr. Bill Bullins,” Fulcher said. She added that Bullins has been a mentor to her.

She praised Rich Acres’ staff, parents, volunteers and students, as well as the school division, Elizabeth Minter (who was principal three years after Bullins) and officials and students from other schools who come to talk with or do programs for students at Rich Acres.

“The teachers at Rich Acres understand where students are and where they need to go in their learning,” she said. “This begins before school starts by studying data” about which specific academic skills students already have learned and what they need to work on, Fulcher said.

During the school year, teachers use what are called VDOE curriculum frameworks to make sure the knowledge and skills they are teaching students meet state standards for the subjects.

“To track student learning, staff work with small groups or individuals to give quick, descriptive feedback (tips to help them improve), assisting students and providing remediation for them as they make corrections on work before advancing to the next skill,” Fulcher said.

“Corrections are big” at Rich Acres, Fulcher said. Teachers don’t just mark something wrong and throw it in the trash can. Teachers help students reflect on what they got wrong and give them tips to help figure out how to get the right answer, she explained. Teachers don’t want students to keep repeating a mistake, because it gets harder and harder to correct, she said.

Instruction and remediation are tailored to each student’s needs, and “assessments are administered as skills are mastered,” Fulcher said,

She added: “While the focus has always remained on instruction, we know that character development and building relationships with students and families are key. The relationships among staff are also instrumental in creating student success.”

Teachers are “accountable to each other,” and they problem-solve and share ideas with each other, she said.

She said the staff is devoted to the students. She pointed to a pair of shoes in her office that a staff member had brought in to help a child. One year a staff member “adopted” a family for Christmas through the angel tree program, she added.

She said there is low faculty turnover, and she sees few student disciplinary problems.

Home visits, regular communication between the school and families and vice versa, and school-sponsored family events have helped build and maintain relationships between the school, students and families, said Fulcher, a former preschool teacher.

For example, the school held a potluck supper for families of English Language Learners (mostly Hispanics) with a mariachi band and pinata.

Activities such as park and rec sports and the school’s Go Far running club also help students, she said.

But as for what distinguishes Rich Acres from other schools, she said, “I can’t answer your question. We’re not doing anything that every other school is not doing.”


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