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Culture of Excellence

Just eight miles from Cincinnati, it sits, snugly tucked into a quaint neighborhood between tree-lined streets and Americana charm. There, partially hidden by foliage, is the building that is occupied by the most celebrated public high school in Northern Kentucky.

At least that’s what various national publications say.

For seemingly the umpteenth time, Fort Mitchell’s Beechwood High School was recognized as a top institution, this time ranked No. 192 by Newsweek magazine in a survey of the nation’s best public schools. Located in the Beechwood Independent School District, the high school (7th-12th grades) shares its building with the elementary school (K-6th) and each have an enrollment of about 550 students.

Time and again, the school makes headlines for — among other things — its talented students, its athletics and its marching band. On average, more than 90 percent of the high school’s graduates go on to college.

It began as a two-room structure in 1860. Today it is recognized as one of the best high schools in the nation. But the question remains: In a relatively small locale, in one building, how does this high school keep doing it?

“This is just such a unique place — I’ve never been anywhere like it,” says Ginger Webb, who has been Beechwood’s Principal for four years. “We’ve have a mentality of ‘We’re good — but how much better can we be?’”

Webb says that even though the school is proud of its recognition, she does not want to focus on past achievements. “It’s a culture of excellence here,” she says. “We’re constantly trying to improve.”

“I think we have all the ingredients here,” says Deborah Haggard, who has spent 10 years at Beechwood, and currently teaches chemistry and biology while coaching the academic team. “We have great students, who are willing and ready to learn. We have parents who want their kids to learn. We have relatively small class sizes. Our principal is a teacher-supporter, where students are most important. We have support from our board and superintendent. And our teachers have very high standards. As a teacher, it’s a great situation. You can spend 100 percent of your time teaching.”

Haggard just won a Golden Apple Award this year, an honor given to those teachers who represent excellence in teaching in the area’s six counties.

Beechwood is no stranger to award-winning students, either. Torie DiMartile is an 18-year-old recent graduate of Beechwood. While a student, she was vice president of the National Honor Society and captain of the Forensics Team. A talented poet, she was the state champion of the annual Poetry Out Loud competition, and she finished runner-up in the National Poetry Out Loud Recitation Contest, earning a $10,000 prize.

“This is such a small community, where you can be engaged with everyone,” says DiMartile, who attended Beechwood for 13 years and will enroll in Centre College this fall. “You receive a lot of attention, which is key for many students. And you see the students before you going off to great schools and then you want to do it too. It becomes commonplace.”

Webb and DiMartile both credited the elementary school with preparing the students for high school, too.

“The high school tends to receive all the credit, but our teachers in the elementary school need recognition too,” Webb says.

Alyssa Vanderpool teaches music at the elementary school while also directing the eighth grade and high school choirs. “We are a family,” says Vanderpool, who has taught at Beechwood for 11 years and was recently named Northern Kentucky’s Music Teacher of the Year. “We truly care and enjoy being together which makes us continuously strive to do our best.”

All agree on one thing. Achieving excellence has become a habit.

“It is a mindset,” Vanderpool says. “Doing anything less than your best just doesn’t make sense.” 

Ready for College, Work

As thousands of children return to Northern Kentucky classrooms this month, there will be many changes, but the end game is the same: job and college readiness.

New this year are the Common Core Standards, a state-led effort to create synergistic education standards, and statewide assessments in high school English II, algebra II, biology and U.S. history classes.

“We have been greatly involved in a lot of state and national initiatives … in the last 10 years,” says Terri Cox-Cruey, Kenton County superintendent. It’s now time to implement them in all classrooms, the superintendent says.

The goal is to focus on educational outcomes that align with college and workforce expectations. Educators will focus on teaching practical, relevant knowledge and accurately assessing the programs’ impact when they go into effect during the 2011-2012 school year, with full accountability for implementation in 2012-2013.

Working Together

“As a region, I think you see a very collaborative effort to get every child college and career ready,” says Shelli Wilson, interim superintendent of Campbell County.

The region’s school systems have a history of working together through the Northern Kentucky Education Council and Education Action Teams
comprised of educators, community members and business leaders. Efforts are underway to help parents understand new standards and assessments.

“The strength in our region is that we do have those networks built to be able to work collaboratively,” Wilson says.

“Campbell County has high expectations for every child,” Wilson says. “No matter what you do, we want you to be the best at it and we’ll prepare you to do that.”

Still Growing

Meanwhile, Campbell, Kenton and Boone counties are still growing.

Boone County, long in rapid growth mode, continues to build a new school every year. Longbranch Elementary opened this year and Thornwilde Elementary is slated to open in 2013.

Low property taxes and thriving businesses drive the growth, says Boone County Superintendent Randy Poe. It’s a “great place to live, a great community that has good quality of life.”

Growth dipped in Campbell County, but that’s changing and approximately 60 new students join the district each year, says Wilson. “In Campbell County, we had a large reassignment four years ago and that has prepared us for the growth and expansion that we see just starting to take place,” she says.

Campbell County is building an athletic complex and a technology center at the high school, which will offer state-of-the-art programs in masonry, information technology, health sciences, and pre-engineering.

Nearby, Scott High School in Kenton County is undergoing a top-down renovation that will include a new football field and stadium. Collaborative planning between the architects, teachers and students will help the school meet modern needs.

For instance, convertible classroom space might be used for collaborative teaching activities, such as joint lesson planning. Lockers will probably be about waist height so they can double as a work surface. Electrical outlets will be more accessible so students can keep those laptops and iPads charged.

“We anticipate that there’s going to be a much larger reliance on our electronic devices than our textbooks,” Cox-Cruey says.

“We’ve been working on improving all of our buildings in terms of energy efficiency.”

In the past two years, the program has reduced energy costs by more than $2 million. Those savings have allowed more teachers to keep their jobs and more programs to keep their funding.

Budget Squeeze

Achieving high expectations will be more difficult given current funding.

“Because we have more students with the same amount of dollars so that’s less resources to go around,” Poe says.

As the bar is raised for students, teacher training is more important than ever. Yet, funding for teacher professional development has been cut consistently.

“We are prioritizing,” Wilson says. “We are making every dollar stretch in every way possible.”

It’s working, say educators. “The outcomes are clearly convincing when you look at the amount of scholarship opportunities that our students are receiving, the amount of students that are exiting who are college and career ready,” Wilson says.

“I don’t think you can help but be impressed with all that is occurring for our students.”