David Duffer, principal of Clays Mill Elementary School, believes in meeting students where they are academically and working with them to get them where they need to be.

That strategy is working for the school principal. Clays Mill Elementary recently earned the 2020 Board of Education Highest Achievement Award. The Halifax County school is one of 71 schools in Virginia earning the award.

Schools recognized for highest achievement were “Accredited” during the 2019-2020 school year, based on performance data from 2018-2019, and demonstrated high levels of success across all school quality indicators, including success in narrowing achievement gaps, according to Dr. Jeanie Hawks, director of instructional technology/ division testing for Halifax County Public Schools.

Schools also had to meet the Level One accreditation benchmark for reading, mathematics and science based on the student pass rate, not including growth or progress on assessments taken by English language learners.

“Every year we start from scratch regardless of the testing results the year before. We assess our students to determine what they need and what we need to do to reach our goals,” Duffer said. “Students understand that when we work shoulder to shoulder and have trust we can achieve more. Teachers make math and reading come alive by showing students how relevant it is in our lives every day. We never stop learning from our students and how we can improve as educators.”

Preparing students to perform confidently and successfully on standardized tests also is part of the instructional day at Clays Mill Elementary.

“We have focused on best practices to teach strategies that help students better understand how best to answer questions in reading and math when they are being tested,” Duffer said.

Clays Mill Elementary was the only school in Halifax County Public Schools that received an exemplar performance school award. In addition to the highest achievement award, the state Board of Education awarded a continuous improvement award and an innovative practice award to schools throughout Virginia for the previous school year.

“I congratulate the principals, teachers, support professionals and students of all of these schools and divisions for the achievement, innovations and hard work recognized by these awards,” Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane said, in a news release announcing the exemplar performance school awards.

“I believe the success of these schools and school divisions will inspire learning communities across the commonwealth as they plan for the reopening of school and prepare to meet the instructional and social-emotional needs of students – especially students most impacted by the closure this spring.”

Last school year, teachers at Clays Mill paid attention to students that were falling behind academically, helped those students understand how important it was to reach the school’s academic benchmarks, and the students reached those benchmarks as a result, Duffer related.

He added the school’s teachers use small group instruction to build “trust and independence” in students and use Guided Reading and Guided Math to bridge learning gaps that students might have.

Bridging gaps in student achievement is one of the school quality indicators the state Board of Education uses to determine which schools receive the highest achievement award. Students must have had no more than a 5% achievement gap, for schools with two student groups, or a 10% gap, for schools with three or more student groups, between the lowest-performing group and all other students in the school, according to the news release on the board’s announcement of the awards.

Schools receiving the highest achievement award also must have achieved at Level One on all other applicable school quality indicators.

Miranda Baines is a staff writer for The Gazette-Virginian. Contact her at mbaines@gazettevirginian.com.

Miranda Baines is a staff writer for The Gazette-Virginian. Contact her at mbaines@gazettevirginian.com.