Emily did not want to go to kindergarten. She charged into her classroom at Frontier Elementary defiantly, sitting down, crossing her arms, and glaring towards the front of the room. Her testing results showed her far below grade level in every subject. She went home every day to a small apartment, her parents busy working to make ends meet.
The story of Emily could have ended here, with her getting passed from teacher to teacher until she finished elementary school far behind her peers and with the daunting difficulties of middle school ahead of her. But it didn’t.
Veteran teacher Mary Allen explained that by the time she finished fifth grade, Emily “was like a celebrity in the hallways,” smiling and waving at everyone as she walked by. Plus, she was testing at grade level.
What made the difference? According to principal Katie Rutan, the “Frontier Way.”
Frontier Elementary School in West Ada School District recently earned the title of National ESEA (Every Student Succeeds Act) Distinguished School, placing them amongst the top 100 schools being honored by ESEA nationwide.
The Idaho Department of Education considered schools for the award with Title I status and a poverty rate of 35% or more.
Despite the barriers in place for many of the 270 Frontier students based on financial challenges, Rutan and her staff were chosen for the award based on exemplary math and ELA achievement levels.
Rutan, in her sixth year as principal, attended Frontier as a child. Her father, Douglas Rutan, was principal of Frontier from 1986 – 1991. She started her career teaching for eight years, but “always knew” she wanted to do administration.
Of the challenges her students face she explained, “we could just say (our students) aren’t going to learn as well (because of their background). We don’t. We have them for eight hours a day, we can make a difference.”
Take Emily. Allen readily admitted, “there was no way I was getting her to grade level by the end of the year. But I got her part of the way, and the next year they got her another part. And by the time she was leaving elementary school, she was where she needed to be.”
Allen emphasized how the mindset of the teachers and staff changes everything.
“When we all believe that we can make a difference…that trickles down to our students where then they believe that they can do it too. (They say) ‘if she thinks I can do it, I think I can too.’”
Allen explained how this mindset also allows teachers to see themselves as part of a big team, instead of focusing solely on their individual classrooms. They all work together to help students like Emily over many years.
Part of the reason for Emily’s “celebrity status” upon leaving the elementary school was her interaction with so many different adults in the building. With extra funds due to their Title I status, Rutan hires “as much staffing as I can, to get as much individualized student targeted instruction as I can.”
For this school year, Frontier’s initial Title I distribution was $210,000. Allocations in Idaho ranged from $1,000 to $461,500 for this school year, with the average at $63,612.
Thanks to these funds, Frontier’s ratio is 40% supporting staff, 60% certified teachers. This means students like Emily not only have classroom teachers, but paraprofessionals who can give them individual and small group instruction targeted to their needs.
Allen emphasized that when students need assistance, “we come up with a plan, but that plan usually involves people outside of my classroom. I cannot do all of the intervention on my own.”
Not only do teachers and supporting staff work together, they celebrate together. Rutan fondly recounted that upon learning about Frontier’s award, a teacher called a paraprofessional on medical leave right away to let her know about their success.
“That’s Frontier,” she said. “A teacher calling one of our (paraprofessionals) and saying, ‘you are part of this.’” She continued, “The (supporting staff) in this building are as much a part of the staff as anyone else. And they are the heart and the joy and the positivity.”
Rutan not only prioritizes unity among staff members but with students as well. On the first day of school she walks around the hall, calling each student by name.
The students also know the goals of the school. Walk into Frontier any given morning and you’ll hear a chorus of voices reciting (with hand motions) Frontier’s Mission Statement. “At Frontier, we take pride in our learning, build positive relationships, embrace challenges and collaborate in order to become our best selves.”
Every student knows the mission statement, and Rutan says it is used often in classrooms and when students might be struggling.
When asked, current fifth grade student Kellom Lubiens said his favorite part of the mission statement is “positive relationships,” and he thinks about it while interacting with those in his class.
Kellom said he builds positive relationships through Falcon Friends, a program he applied to where he wears a vest and helps smaller students at recess time if they need help.
In the end, the “Frontier Way” centers around unity between teachers, staff, administration and students. As Rutan remarked, “It’s not one person. It’s not one initiative. It’s just a commitment of really dedicated people who have built a really strong system.”
Rutan recalled the pride she felt watching Frontier employees learn of this national award.
“It’s like when a mom sees their kid has worked really hard on something. And you know how hard they’ve worked. And you can tell them all day how proud you are…But to watch them finally hear it from somebody else…and get the recognition they deserved….was so awesome.”