Six Colorado schools honored as National Blue Ribbon Schools

A second-grade student raises their hand at Denver’s Carson Elementary.
Students raise their hands at Carson Elementary, one of three schools in Denver and six in Colorado recognized as National Blue Ribbon Schools. (Kevin J. Beaty / Denverite)

Six Colorado schools have been named 2021 National Blue Ribbon Schools, a prestigious recognition that can be based on overall academic performance or on helping traditionally underserved student groups make more progress.

Nationally, just 325 schools were named National Blue Ribbon Schools this year.

This year’s Colorado winners include three in Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district, one in Boulder, one in LaSalle, a Weld County town near Greeley, and a private Christian school in Highlands Ranch.

They are: 

  • High Peaks Elementary School in the Boulder Valley School District
  • Carson Elementary School in Denver Public Schools
  • McKinley-Thatcher Elementary School in Denver Public Schools
  • William Roberts ECE-8 School in Denver Public Schools
  • Valor Christian High School in Highlands Ranch
  • North Valley Middle School in LaSalle 

McKinley-Thatcher Elementary and North Valley Middle School were both recognized as exemplary achievement-gap closing schools, while the others were recognized as exemplary high-performing schools. 

“As I reflect, we did a lot of things,” North Valley Middle School Principal Mark Avery said. “The biggest thing is that we were really intentional about some strategies around reading, especially with building vocabulary and writing.” 

With more consistent instructional approaches related to reading, students also improved in their ability to access other grade-level material. Teachers regularly collect data on student performance and use it to design interventions in both math and reading. 

North Valley Middle School serves roughly 215 students, more than 60% of whom are students of color. More than a quarter are learning English as a second language, and more than 60% qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. Families in the community earn a living mostly in agriculture and oil and gas. 

North Valley also has a center-based program for higher-needs students with disabilities. The school moved away from pulling students out for interventions and added co-teachers to general education classrooms. When students need extra help, teachers make sure they can get it without missing out on electives like art and music. 

“We try to offer a comprehensive experience and recognize that elective may be the reason that kid is coming to school,” Avery said. 

Denver’s McKinley-Thatcher Elementary was actually at risk of closing back in 2014, with low enrollment, low test scores, and the lowest possible rating on the district’s performance framework. School leaders worked with parents and community members to identify new priorities, including experiential learning, individualized approaches, and social and emotional learning.

“All kids need the space to learn in their own way,” Principal Sonia Geerdes said.

The school also implemented rigorous and individualized training for teachers.

Six years later, enrollment is increasing, and students of color slightly outperform white students on state assessments. The school, located in Denver’s Platt Park neighborhood, serves about 250 students, with about 42% of them students of color. More than a third of students qualify for subsidized lunches.

Test scores have risen along with these changes.

“We believe that’s how kids learn best,” Geerdes said. “We really tap into being a community of learners. We’re not a test prep school, and that’s not what we think matters most.”

Public schools are nominated for Blue Ribbon status by their state’s chief education officer, in this case Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes. Student performance on state and national assessments weighs heavily in consideration for the recognition. With testing disrupted for two years due to the pandemic, applicants submitted assessment data from the 2018-19 school year along with other information about their school. 

In a press release, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona recognized the extraordinary conditions in which educators have been teaching. 

“I commend all our Blue Ribbon honorees for working to keep students healthy and safe while meeting their academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs,” he said. “In the face of unprecedented circumstances, you found creative ways to engage, care for, protect, and teach our children. Blue Ribbon Schools have so much to offer and can serve as a model for other schools and communities so that we can truly build back better.”

Avery said the credit ultimately belongs to his school community.

“At the end of the day, we have great kids and great staff and a supportive community,” he said. “None of the other stuff matters if you don’t have that.”

Learn more about this year’s Blue Ribbon winners here.

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