CRYSTAL, N.D. – Valley-Edinburg Elementary School has been selected as one of three 2021 National Blue Ribbon Schools in North Dakota.

The award is given by the U.S. Department of Education to honor public and private schools across the country that display overall academic excellence or progress in closing achievement gaps. A total of 302 public and 23 non-public schools were selected for this recognition.

Forty-seven students are enrolled in grades 4-8 at Valley-Edinburg Elementary School, said Kierstin Hurtt, superintendent of the Valley-Edinburg School District.

With the National Blue Ribbon School award, Valley-Edinburg Elementary was recognized as an Exemplary High Performing School, which are among the highest performing schools as measured by state assessments or nationally normed tests. The other category, Exemplary Achievement Gap Closing Schools, recognizes highest-performing schools in closing achievement gaps between a school’s student groups and all students.

The Valley-Edinburg school was nominated last spring by State School Superintendent Kirsten Baesler for the National Blue Ribbon School award, Hurtt said. Then Hurtt and the teaching staff “started the lengthy application process, which basically asked us to explain how we were able to improve our students’ learning over that half a decade,” she said. “There was immense growth within the last seven years. So a lot of it was explaining what our school did, how the teachers taught, everything like that.”

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“We’ve had a tremendous amount of growth in student learning that (the Department of Public Instruction was) able to observe from state standardized tests, everything like that. That’s what I think kind of flagged us,” said Hurtt, who is in her first school year as superintendent, following one year as a part-time teacher and part-time principal in the district.

As a new superintendent, “so much of this process has been learning the story of this growth,” she said. “Coming into this, I knew that these students were very academic, they performed very well academically.”

Learning about the award and why the school was nominated for it “had to do with talking to those teachers who taught within those past seven years about what they did to really change the rigor in this school,” Hurtt said. “So this whole thing has been a big learning process for me as well.”

At Valley-Edinburg Elementary, for grades 4-8, Hurtt oversees seven full-time teachers, including – for grades 5-8 – departmentalized teachers in math, science, English and history.

“It’s a relatively small staff that does this, and because we’re departmentalized that’s what’s given us the opportunity to offer a large variety of specials to students, so they were getting involved in robotics and STEM seminars and theater and speech,” she said. “These kids really got a lot of different experiences because the staff was really optimized.”

When Hurtt joined the school district in the fall of 2019, Hurtt said, “it was very interesting coming into this. They had been doing this for a while. I came from a high school (in Park River, N.D.) so it was a very different experience. But I realized they really had something great going on in the way that they chose to design this.”

Extraordinary student academic progress – and subsequent recognition as a National Blue Ribbon School – is the result of an intentional, studied approach to education.

“From talking with so many veteran teachers who really made that big push during those years, I think this is all a testament to getting back to the basics of just good teaching, looking at what we’re supposed to be teaching, really thinking about how we’re teaching these things,” Hurtt said. “And just putting students first – being accountable for how they’re performing, looking at this stuff, interpreting it, and then taking action from there – which is what education is supposed to be all about.

“We’re seeing how kids are doing, and then jumping in and intervening where we can,” she said. “And that really does change the trajectory of the kids’ education when you’re able to do that.”

At a ceremony in November in Washington, D.C., all National Blue Ribbon Schools will receive an award plaque and an honorary blue flag to display at their school to symbolize this accomplishment.

“I think, especially after a year of pandemic, we’re really excited to show just how serious we are about kids and their education – always putting that first,” she said.

As superintendent, Hurtt oversees a school district which includes a Pre-K-3 school in Hoople and grades 9-12 school in Edinburg, with total enrollment of 175.

The other North Dakota schools that received the 2021 National Blue Ribbon School award are Roosevelt Elementary School in Mandan and Wyndmere Public School.

Six Minnesota schools were named for the award, but none in the Herald readership area.

The National Blue Ribbon School award has been given by the U.S. Department of Education since 1982.