Three Decatur-area schools, one that focuses on preparing every student for a job and two that strive to build relationships with parents as well as students, have received Blue Ribbon Lighthouse status.

The Morgan County Schools Technology Park is one of the first career and technical schools in the nation to receive this honor, according to Blue Ribbon officials. Frances Nungester Elementary, a Title 1 school, and Walter Jackson Elementary joined Leon Sheffield Magnet as the only sites in Decatur City Schools with the designation.

The schools will maintain their Lighthouse status for five years and have agreed to share what they are doing with other schools in the nation that may be seeking guidance and assistance with school-improvement initiatives.

“Lighthouse is the highest honor you can receive,” Decatur Superintendent Michael Douglas said.

During onsite visits in April and online surveys with parents, students and teachers, Blue Ribbon representatives assessed the schools in nine areas, and the positive comments that linked all three schools centered on school culture and community involvement.

“We just don’t focus on building relationships with our students,” said Walter Jackson Elementary Principal Tamara Caudle. “We reach out to our parents to let them know what is expected and this cuts down on behavior problems and improves attendance.”

Walter Jackson — despite having a 61% poverty rate — got an A on its report card from the state, and its test scores are in the top 20% among elementary schools statewide.

“Our position is all students can learn regardless of their circumstances,” Caudle said. “That’s the expectation, but we have programs that support those expectations and we celebrate success — whether a student makes straight A's or has his score to move from a C to B.”

Frances Nungester, a Title I school with one of the highest poverty rates in the state at 88%, has similar programs that caught the attention of Blue Ribbon visitors.

Two of them were the Lunch Buddy Program and the relationship the school has with nearby First Bible Church. The lunch program pairs an adult from the church with students whose parents, because of work or other reasons, can’t come eat lunch with their child, Principal Shannon McCaskey said.

She said parents give the OK for their child to have a lunch buddy.

“They are faithful,” McCaskey said about the representatives from First Bible who come to eat lunch with students.

She said the library was full when Blue Ribbon representatives met with parents.

McCaskey said First Bible also supports Frances Nungester’s backpack program, which provides food for students to eat on weekends.

In the academic arena, Blue Ribbon cited the school’s approach to dealing with poverty. Instead of using poverty as an excuse for failure, McCaskey said they embrace the challenges and work on building relationships with students and parents to let them know they matter.

Frances Nungester received a B on its state report card and better than 90% of its students showed academic growth.

Jeremy Childers, who is career tech and workforce development director for Morgan County, said Blue Ribbon officials talked a lot about the relationship instructors at Morgan County Schools Technology Park have with students.

“The culture at the school is absolutely amazing,” he said, adding that most career technical education teachers can make more money outside of education. “But, they have a passion for the kids, and their mission is to make sure that every student that walks in the door learns a skill that will help them make a living.”

The technology park joins Cotaco Junior High, Danville-Neel Elementary, Priceville Elementary and Priceville Junior High as schools with Lighthouse distinction in Morgan County.

Superintendent Bill Hopkins Jr. said Brewer High, Falkville Elementary, Lacey’s Spring and Union Hill are going through the Blue Ribbon process.

— deangelo@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2469. Twitter @DD_Deangelo.

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