Hampstead Elementary School staff were funneling in and out of the conference room, grabbing boxes of packaged cookies and Ziploc bags. Bags full of blue and silver balloons sat in the corner of the principal’s office, and preparations for an assembly were underway.
The school was recognized for the above-and-beyond work put toward its students. It’s a practice they continued even through the coronavirus pandemic.
“The pandemic didn’t take away from what we have accomplished,” Principal Arlene Moore said. “We have beaten the odds.”
Moore said the school was supposed to have a cookie party earlier this year, but then schools were shut down due to the coronavirus. The two-day celebration started Thursday and ends Friday, Nov. 13. She’s hoping the superstitious date isn’t an omen that something bad will happen due to the recent rise of coronavirus cases in the county.
Moore said Hampstead Elementary has always been a top three school in the county and now it is in the top 15% in the state.
“We have other counties calling us for advice,” she said.
Friday’s assembly starts at 3 p.m. Students both in school and learning from home will be able to watch, and board members will tune in via the Microsoft Teams platform. School officials will share a few words and a slideshow will play showing pictures of hardworking students and a dinner held for the winners in Annapolis. They will also play a recorded virtual ceremony that the National Blue Ribbon Schools Program had Thursday.
The school was given a Maryland flag that says “Blue Ribbon School” on it, and it also received a letter from President Donald Trump and a plaque, which will go in the award showcase that sits in the school’s lobby.
Moore said the accomplishment was a schoolwide effort and called teachers “the real superheroes” because of what they have managed to do during hybrid and virtual learning. It wasn’t something they prepared for, she said; instead, they had “on the job, learn as you go training.”
The Blue Ribbon Schools program recognizes schools that “exhibit high performance and/or significant improvement in student achievement. Reducing the achievement gap for disadvantaged students is also a criterion,” according to the Maryland State Department of Education.
Moore said it was a long application process for the national award, including having staff write essays and summarize how they closed achievement gaps.
It was tough, Moore said, because the application was due April 30 when schools hadn’t yet reopened.
Hampstead Elementary, which has around 400 students, is a regional school. About 50 students who live outside the district also attend. It also has special education programs like the Learning for Independence Program, or LFI, which is a special education program offering a certificate of completion for its students, many of whom have complex medical needs that may not be able to be met in their home schools.
The elementary school also offers PREP, an intervention program, and a gifted and talented program for accelerated students.
Moore said looking at the data and seeing what needs to be done differently is an ongoing conversation. Staff talk about goals and strategies for individuals, she said, and make sure no students are left behind.
When she arrived at the school seven years ago after spending 15 years in Baltimore County’s school system, Moore said the structure was there but needed to “tighten up accountability.”
“I think the biggest change was changing the mindset,” she said. “That was the hardest piece.”
Acting Assistant Principal Addison Beck said Hampstead has special education students in the same classes as general education students. She said they were originally divided, and Moore wanted to work on the perception of how students saw each other.
Now both groups of students are in the same classrooms, sit at the same lunch tables and work on the same projects. They also attended one another’s birthday parties before the pandemic and had sleepovers.
Beck said the school has a garden, and students with autism can learn how to take care of it. She said a parent called them to share that when her child was in the park, which is usually an isolated event, kids who worked on the garden with her child were excited to see him and greeted him on the playground.
“The inclusion is amazing,” Beck said.
Moore said it’s important for students to have that interaction with one another and build those social skills as it will prepare them for middle school and beyond.
“They have to learn these life lessons, how you treat everyone,” she said.
Beck said Moore leads by example. She said Moore sets high expectations for herself, and it trickles down to her staff. Beck said it shows in the teaching and test scores. She also said the Moore makes sure equity exists in the school system.
“She works hard to make sure every student is taken care of,” Beck said.
Moore said they probably gave out 200 laptops to virtual learners, and Beck dropped off packets to families.
“Hopefully five years from now we can look back … and say, ‘We survived the pandemic 2020,’ ” she said.
Beck also said Moore tries to spend time with students to make connections by having lunches with them and trying to learn everyone’s name.
Moore said if students know she genuinely cares for them, they are more willing to accept direction and feedback.
Beck said what makes the school stand out are the teachers. They stay online past class hours to help students, they work with children one on one and they keep in touch with parents, she said. Moore added that even office staff and custodians go above and beyond.
“Everyone takes great pride in what they do here,” she said.