Enter the front doors of Murtaugh Elementary School and it’s hard to believe that school is in session. Actually, it’s more in line with a day spa experience – Disney music plays, the air is fragrant, and the design hints of Feng Shui. A large screen showcases school events, student photos of class projects, school announcements, school lunch menus, and posts from student iPads running continuously… in both English and Spanish.
Murtaugh School District is a different kind of learning place.
College Readiness Indicators:
Murtaugh has had full-time kindergarten for 20 years. They have also provided preschool to all four year-olds for the past thirteen years. Their commitment to the program has been steadfast because they see the results…and not just in the numbers.
Erica Inda is a Title Reading paraprofessional and is a former student of Murtaugh’s Superintendent, Elementary Principal, and Federal Programs Director Michele Capps. Because of the planning that went into the design of the building, Inda teaches in a room that is accessible to the first grade and kindergarten classrooms, therefore, making the transitions for interventions and testing seamless.
Esmerelda is one of the “middle level” readers from the kindergarten class who visits Inda to read. The fact that Esmerelda reads a book aloud easily, is impressive for her age. The fact that she started the school year speaking very little English, makes her achievement remarkable.
“We are committed to full-day kindergarten and preschool because it is the best thing for our kids. That’s how we make decisions. We want the very best for our students and we believe that this system works.”
Kindergartners and first graders have access to iPads for half of their academic day. Second through fifth graders have access to iPads for the full academic day.
Sixth, seventh and eighth graders have 1:1 devices which were paid for by a KHAN Academy grant through the Idaho Community Foundation among other grant assistance. All students 9-12th grades are allowed to take Chromebooks home, and according to Capps, they’ve never lost a device to date.
“We’ve had 1:1 devices in first through twelfth grade for three years. We’ve had to replace a couple of the Chromebook screens, but the only iPad screen damage was caused by a teacher.” She laughed. “It was actually a complete fluke.”
Capps explained, “The rollout isn’t as big a crisis as some people make it out to be. Families make a deposit, which usually covers any damage if it happens.”
The computer lab is used for testing and the Imagine Learning program for LEP learners was was paid for by a School Improvement Grant (SIG) money.
“There was a weird combination of factors that allowed us to qualify. We have never been involved with “school improvement,” but the opportunities that came with the program have allowed us to improve our programs and instructional strategies.”
Across the narrow street that runs through town is a new maintenance and Ag shop, which was constructed at the same time as the new elementary school. Next door to it is a new greenhouse paid for by a Monsanto grant. The front parking lot for the high school is being repaved with money the school district set aside. To date, the district has not needed a supplemental levy.
Pride in the Community:
The school’s gym is a work of art. The large “M” glass emblem on the wall, when lit up at night, can be seen by travellers on U.S. Highway 30, while Murtaugh patrons celebrate and sing the traditional school song “Light the M.”
“Our Open House was one of the most rewarding events in my career. People were so proud and so supportive of the new facility,” Capps remembered. “Our parents are proud of their school and we make sure they know this is a community-based facility.” The bond for the new school passed with 80% approval.
The incredible playground equipment was paid for through a grant that Capps wrote. She noted, “We have families coming from other towns to picnic and let their kids play on the playground.”
Jaiden Widmier, a sixth grader at Murtaugh made it a point to mention that the old elementary school building is still a special place. It is a space for the After School Program, which offers kids classes in tumbling, art, cross stitch, cooking, science experiments, and academic tutorials four days a week. These are all programs designed to foster community connections and provide students who can’t afford private lessons or trips to town, with opportunities for personal growth.
Assessment Growth’s Sake!
Murtaugh’s sixth grade teacher Shae Prescott beams energy when speaking of students’ success. “The ISATs aren’t our ‘be-all end-all,’ but we had really good results this year.” In fact, the sixth grade math scores were 71% proficient this year, while the state average is 21.4%. Their ELA scores were even more impressive. Considering that 50% of the student population comes from Spanish-speaking homes, 69% proficiency is no small matter. The state ELA average for proficiency is 39.4%. But the success story doesn’t stop there.
“At my old school, we never celebrated and I didn’t know half the kids in my class. Now I know everyone in the whole middle school and we celebrate things like our AR (Accelerated Reader) goals. Kids who make the AR goals have parties and field trips,” Martinez beamed.
Capps led the way to the high school hallway, and intuitively, honed in on raucous cheers coming from behind a closed, classroom door. Thrown wide open, students were smiling, texting, and joking. The cause for celebration? They were texting their mothers and fathers and congratulating each other on their SAT scores. Imagine that! Students who are so proud of their achievement they want to “write home about it.”
Maci Diamond was one of the revellers who pointed out, “I was impressed with my SAT scores. Teachers expect more from us. They lay down the law. If someone falls behind the expectations, they work to bring them up to that bar (of expected achievement)…they don’t see us as students, they see us as people.”
Another expectation that seems to define the elusive “Murtaugh Culture” is an unrelenting attitude of positivity. “Murtaugh has a reputation,” grinned Junior Adrian Gil. “We have this image of being the ‘nice school’ even when we’re playing other schools in athletics.” Gil added, “That’s what I really appreciate about Murtaugh. Teachers bend over backwards to help us, and if a new kid comes to the school, everybody (students and teachers) makes it super easy to fit in.”
Capps explained, “We encourage Spanish speakers. I tell parents, ‘We can teach students English but we can’t teach them Spanish like you can.’ We encourage native language speaking because kids think better when they’re bilingual and it gives them an advantage later in life, in college or career. Our pre-school teacher is also bilingual.”
Anita McClure is a first-year, second grade teacher at Murtaugh. “This is a safe place for kids. Not just physically, but in a way that makes kids willing to take risks in their thinking and learning. That’s the culture that is embedded here.”
McClure pointed out that “this is a low income community and we just don’t have the same mentality as other communities that have the same demographics. Here, Personalized Learning is the norm. You have pockets of it in other schools. Here, it’s the culture. It’s not a pocket, it’s pervasive.”
Lilia Gil has worked for Capps at Murtaugh for 13 years. She admits that there are times when she struggles to find the right word in English, but when she tried to explain the leadership style of Michele Capps, she was fast and fluid with her words. “There’s not a word! I’ve been with her for 13 years and there’s no word. One of the things that I admire the most is when kids come in from the outside, she (Capps) has me print pictures of each of the new students and she (Capps) makes it a point to learn their faces and names the first day they come. That can make all the difference for a kid.”
Numbers and Change:
The numbers for the 2016-17 school year are indicative of change. The 2016 graduating class is a group of ten, Murtaugh’s last traditionally, small class. Next year’s kindergarten is looming at 33 students. In the past two years, the student population in grades 6-12 has grown from 98 to 140, bringing the total PK- 12 population to 320. Capps points to the small subdivision across the way. “It’s selling lots and filling up.”
It’s well-known that communities grow when word travels that the school district is doing good work.
The final question, “How do you do it?” Capps laughed. She’s been asked that question by visitors who try to decipher Murtaugh’s “Culture of Success.”
Capps answered, “The only secret is surrounding yourself with people who have the same dedication to students as you do, and working really hard to make sure they all have what they need to do their jobs.”