"Hall Passages" is a weekly education feature in the Missoulian. Each week on a rotating basis, K-12 education reporter Jamie Kelly visits a private or public school in the Missoula Valley to see what's new in the halls and walls of our learning institutions. This week, Kelly spent some time at Russell Elementary.

Bully for the Bears.

Russell Elementary School is one of three Montana schools - two of them from Missoula - to be nominated by the state for a National Blue Ribbon Award.

Like its mascot the bear, Russell School is tough and determined - with enough of both qualities to be filled with children from struggling families who are making the grade anyway.

And that is a testament, said Principal Cindy Christensen, to a staff and a crowd of volunteers working to help each of the more than 300 students here learn at a high level.

"They put their heart and soul into coming to school every day and helping kids be successful," said the second-year principal, who also spent eight years as principal of Lowell Elementary.

Russell and Cold Springs Elementary have been nominated as Blue Ribbon schools to the U.S. Department of Education, which annually awards around 300 schools the honor for their academic achievement - whether they are in the top

10 percent of schools statewide overall, or have at least 40 percent of their students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Neither school knows officially which standard brought them the nomination, and the state Office of Public Instruction isn't saying.

But with almost two-thirds of her students on the free- and reduced-lunch program, Christensen is fairly certain she knows the reason for the nomination - but more importantly, the reason for the school's success.

"If a kid needs support here," she said, "we find that support for them immediately," both academically and otherwise.

For at least the last five years, both Russell and Cold Springs have met the academic standards outlined in the No Child Left Behind Act. That standard, called Adequate Yearly Progress (or AYP), raises an increasingly high bar for students and schools to reach in reading and math scores.

Two years away from the standard of 100 percent, neither has failed to hurdle that bar once.

There are numerous reasons for the school's success, said Christensen.

Daily, the school is filled with parent volunteers, retired seniors and para-educators whose work largely goes unrecognized.

"We've got a lot of people plugged into our building," she said.

Christensen too couldn't be prouder of her staff.

"Both of our staffs have worked really hard to support our kids and to get them to where our schools are," she said.

Russell is deeply involved in Response to Intervention, the education program designed to help struggling students without marginalizing them.

Students here are also under the umbrella of an aggressive anti-bullying program, as well as the implementation of the Montana Behavioral Initiative - the OPI-directed program which leads schools to develop strict standards of behavior.

In other words, Russell has nice kids.

"We really focus on those and we teach them," Christensen said. "Every class."

Once nominated, school principals fill out a lengthy application due in Helena by Feb. 12.

After that, the thousands of nominations around the country are reviewed by the Department of Education, which will announce the winners in September 2011.

Only 300 will win an award out of the 133,000 public and private K-12 schools in the United States.

Reach reporter Jamie Kelly at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.


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