Home Bessie Weller Elementary’s state performance award highlights success of Staunton Schools

Bessie Weller Elementary’s state performance award highlights success of Staunton Schools

Ms. Beville’s 2nd-grade class reads “J.D. and the Great Barber Battle” as a group. Courtesy of Staunton Schools.

Bessie Weller Elementary School was unaccredited for approximately seven years until the 2017-2018 school year.

But, this year, the Staunton school was one of only 64 schools in Virginia to receive the Exemplar Performance School Award, one of the highest academic achievements for a school in Virginia.

The Exemplar Performance School Award is part of the Virginia Board of Education’s Exemplar School Recognition Program and is given to schools that exceed performance requirements or show continuous improvement on academic and school quality indicators.

“I do think accreditation is a measure that we all aspire to,” Staunton Schools Executive Director of Instruction Stephanie Haskins said. “So continuing to work hard and not necessarily reaching that high benchmark is always something we’re going to strive toward.”

Sandra McGrath became Bessie Weller Elementary’s principal in 2021 after serving as interim assistant principal since 2017. She previously was a math teacher at Shelburne Middle and a math coach at A.R. Ware Elementary.

“But being a part of Staunton City and just kind of knowing how important it is for kids to be able to be successful I always had the question: ‘what was going on at Bessie?'” McGrath said. In 2016, she became a math coach at Bessie Weller.

Staunton Schools Superintendent Dr. Garret Smith said Bessie Weller experienced a lot of staff and teacher turnaround before earning accreditation.

“It’s really hard to get traction when you have turnover. You’ve got to stop that first, you’ve got to stop that turnover. There’s a science to school turnover and that’s one of the first things you need to do,” Smith said.

McGrath said school staff should also ask why accreditation is elusive.

According to Haskins, when Bessie Weller earned accreditation, the state had started to look at students with academic growth over time.

“We were gaining traction so the kids really were starting to grow in achievement and that gave us the momentum. It sparked a feeling of success and, over time, that growth has started to develop into students really achieving and meeting the benchmarks,” she said. “And, I think that’s been inspiring to feeling some measures of success.”

Smith said the school system has a uniform approach to school improvement, which includes school leaders taking time in classrooms, as well as teamwork among leaders, staff and teachers at each school. Observation and feedback are consistently provided between teachers and administration.

The school system has also managed to bridge the gap between economic disparity and academic achievement.

“You have to have a targeted, uniform approach. We always say the fastest way to equity is great teaching,” Smith said. And if equity does not show up in a school system’s data, then the approach is not working.

Haskins said the school system does not want economic disparity to be a reason for students not to be successful.

McGrath said that getting the right staff and teachers at Bessie Weller helped turn the situation around.

“It’s hard work, but they’re committed,” she said. “And I think their commitment and their caring for our kids is showing in the scores.”

The school system recently sent feedback to each school about the changes administration has seen and asked what each school attributes its success to. Teamwork and believing in students were prominent in responses.

“We’ve noticed a lot of pockets of success this year, at every school,” Haskins said.

Staunton Schools are also celebrating moving up from 105 to 45 in the Comprehensive Instructional Program (CIP) state rankings of 131 school divisions in Virginia. Smith said he anticipates Staunton will be in 35th place this year.

“We have continued to shoot up the charts with our student achievement results,” Smith said.

The school system expects a 73 percent average pass rate for SOLs in 2024.

Haskins said the state performance award was based on last year’s test results.

“But I would not at all be surprised if there weren’t additional recognitions for this spring’s results,” Haskins said.

Test results for Bessie Weller students also show no disparity among races.

“That makes Bessie special,” McGrath said.

Haskins said that when students, no matter race or economic background, are performing at the same rate “that’s pretty impressive.”

“That’s the goal, right? That’s equity in school,” Smith said.

All students at Bessie Weller are achieving at a high rate, including students with disabilities at 96 percent. Math scores are at 79 percent. In Math, students with disabilities and English language learners are at 100 percent. Students struggled with Science scores a few years ago, but now are at 89 percent, an 18 percent increase from 2023 and a 38 percent increase from 2022.

“We’re crushing pre-pandemic scores. It’s not even close,” Smith said.

The state performance award makes the growth and achievement of Bessie Weller students affirming for the school’s teachers.

“I’d be remiss if I just celebrated the end result. You have to celebrate all the wins along the way and just make sure the staff feels supported at all times and they continue to just care for the kids and work as a team. And, they do,” McGrath said.

Staunton’s Bessie Weller one of 64 Virginia schools to receive performance award – Augusta Free Press

Bessie Weller Elementary School earns accreditation – Augusta Free Press

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca J. Barnabi is the national editor of Augusta Free Press. A graduate of the University of Mary Washington, she began her journalism career at The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. In 2013, she was awarded first place for feature writing in the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Awards Program, and was honored by the Virginia School Boards Association’s 2019 Media Honor Roll Program for her coverage of Waynesboro Schools. Her background in newspapers includes writing about features, local government, education and the arts.