Middle School Wins Big Award

ASU experts recognize RCMS as top rural school in the state when it comes to creative ways to boost student achievement

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Rim Country Middle School’s innovative classes and rising test scores make it a model for schools statewide, concluded school reform experts from Arizona State University.

As a result, RCMS this year won the coveted “lead and inspire” award from ASU’s Office for Education Partnerships.

Janet Grant, who heads the program for ASU, wrote of the rise in the school’s AIMS scores “it was very impressive considering the location and resources of Rim Country. It was very heartening for our review panel to read the student comments and learn how proud the students are of the programs they have been involved with and demonstrates to its students that they are important and that being successful is a community effort.”

Kirsti Kristler, who teaches both English and social studies at the middle school, said “we took the time to think about how we could create a program that would meet everybody’s needs.”

RCMS Principal Gary Witherspoon said “I am very proud of what we have done to meet the needs of all students. We’ve worked hard and smart to meet all the behavior and learning needs of our precious students.”

Laurel Wala, who headed a parents group that played a key role in many of the programs cited in the award certificate, said “my husband and I have two children who attended RCMS. We have found RCMS to provide both a challenging and nurturing environment for our children.”

She cited the development of block classes that allow students to spend two or sometimes four hours with a single teacher or team of teachers so they have the time for in-depth projects.

“This has allowed this group of kids to develop self-confidence as they bond in a collaborative and intellectually supportive environment,” said Wala.

The award cited several innovative programs, including a science class in which students developed key questions for ASU’s team of Mars researchers to study. Two years ago, the RCMS students posed a question about whether traces of water flow across the surface took place before or after the creation of certain impact craters. The question proved so intriguing that the ASU scientists programmed an orbiter to take high-resolution images of certain craters. This year, the students scored again — this time with a question about impact craters, which prompted the ASU team to order up a set of photos that produced an anomaly that still has them stumped.

The school has also taken advantage of federal grants to track student scores in math and reading to pinpoint students struggling with core skills in time to get them extra help.

In addition, the middle school this year benefited from the formation of a group of activist parents that formed the Payson Association for Advanced Learners (PAAL). The group raised money so teachers could get extra training on how to devise lesson plans that would help both top students and struggling students in the same classroom. The group also paid for 40 middle school students to take an educational field trip to Washington, D.C., and for half a dozen students to participate in a model UN program.

Wala cited other unusual classes, like a field trip to Devry University where students studied robotics and electrical engineering and learned to analyze their own blood samples. In addition, students got a geological tour of the upper Colorado River, visited the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff and studied local Paleolithic sites.

Witherspoon also focused on the implementation of a federally funded Response to Intervention (RTI) program, which tests key math and reading skills three times annually. The school then provides help to students struggling with basic skills to keep them from falling behind.

“As a result, our student achievement for all students has increased,” said Witherspoon.

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