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An E for Exceptional

In its first year of eligibility, Forest Grove's Fern Hill Elementary School earns the Oregon Report Card's highest grade
by: Nancy Townsley,

Last Friday was particularly busy in Jennifer Cofield's class at Fern Hill Elementary School.

Her fourth-graders started their day with a morning assembly, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance while learning new vocabulary words like 'republic' and 'indivisible.'

As they do three times a week, pupils performed the 'Brain Dance' with Principal David Dorman, moving and stretching their legs and arms to get the blood flowing.

'It's a series of moves that open up the learning pathways,' said Dorman, who leads the 330-student school.

After singing the 'Adios Song' with their schoolmates, Cofield's students filed into Room 208. There Cofield, a second-year teacher, went over the calendar and launched into a 35-minute math lesson.

'See if you notice a pattern,' she coached her pupils. 'How many puppets did they make on Friday?'

Wearing a wooden whistle around her neck, Cofield flitted from student to student, helping where she could.

One boy, dressed in a camoflauge T-shirt, was having trouble with the math problem, struggling to make sense of the pattern.

'It's OK - you can go back to it later,' encouraged Cofield.

Turning toward a minor disturbance in the back of the room, Cofield quickly regained control.

'Luis! I can't concentrate with you talking,' she said sternly. The boy hushed.

Five minutes later, with all 14 of her students working quietly and industriously, Cofield smiled.

'You guys are doing a nice job,' she observed. 'I'll give you your 50th point.'

It wasn't even lunch yet, and according to Cofield's schedule, there was much more to cover.

Literacy, recess and information about rainforests awaited the students in the afternoon.

School joins Dilley on list

It was all in a day's work at Fern Hill Elementary, newly recognized as an 'exceptional' school by the Oregon Department of Education.

Dilley Elementary was the other Forest Grove school designated as 'exceptional' on the 2006 Oregon Report Card.

For Dorman, the recognition represents a nearly palpable sense of accomplishment.

'We're very happy about it. We're extremely gratified,' he said. 'I give the teachers and our students all the credit.

'That's where it happens - in the classroom.'

Because the ODE requires two years of data on new schools, Fern Hill, which opened in 2003, wasn't eligible for a report card 'grade' until this fall.

Using a combination of data - including test scores in reading, writing, math and science and attendance averages - the state assigns 'grades' to individual schools.

Fern Hill met benchmarks in the 2005-06 No Child Left Behind program, the federal equivalent of the state assessment. Because 65 percent of its student population is Hispanic, Spanish-English immersion programs are offered at each grade level in the K-4 school.

Bilingual teachers in those classes instruct students in English half the time and Spanish half the time.

'Student achievement is our main focus and the driving force behind everything we do,' Dorman states on the school's Web site. 'Literacy comes first.'

Besides academics, staff members teach and re-teach positive behavioral standards, Dorman said. They espouse the 'Fern Hill Five' - Safe, Kind, Honest Respectful and Responsible - and expect students to live by them while at school.

'We're real specific about what 'safe' looks like out in the hallway or at recess,' Dorman said.

Positive behavior is rewarded with 'Falcon Feathers,' square pieces of purple paper children can redeem for small prizes.

So far this year, fourth-grader Susana Reyes, 10, has earned 15 of them.

'It's really nice to get one,' said Reyes, who's part of a peer mediator group that mentors younger students at Fern Hill.

'Last year it was easier to get them,' 9-year-old Edgar Ortiz said of the Falcon Feathers.

'It means you're really good'

Emma Ledford, another fourth-grader, knows what 'exceptional' means, and she's convinced her school lives up to the definition.

'It means that you're really good,' said the bespectacled 9-year-old. 'I like every teacher at our school.'

Why does Guadalupe Aguilar think Fern Hill is special? It's all about the atmosphere.

'I like this school because all the teachers want us to be safe with others,' said Aguilar, a 10-year-old fourth-grader. 'There's no hitting.'

Ledford is glad Fern Hill is a bilingual school.

'People get to learn things they never knew before,' she said. 'It's good because you get help here.'

Ortiz, who lives in Cornelius, learned Spanish first but is involved in the two-way immersion program.

'I started learning English in kindergarten but I've learned more words lately,' he said.

Ortiz enjoys every subject but looks forward to lunchtime each day.

'I like the hamburgers,' he said. 'Sometimes I get pizza, and the spaghetti is good.'

Ledford is looking forward to Fern Hill's 'Deck the Halls' event before winter break.

'We have cookies and hot chocolate,' she said.

'One person dresses up like Santa,' added Aguilar.

Reyes is glad that her teachers are 'nice and funny.' She enjoys a sense of humor along with her lessons, and even appreciates it when her instructors are strict.

'We have to know our mistakes,' Reyes observed. 'The teachers want us to be good people when we grow up.'