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King Elementary's national honor a distinction, indeed

How many elementary schools hold a wedding ceremony for the letters "Q" and "U," just to get students to understand the relationship between the first two letters in words, such as "queen," "quantum," and "quagmire?"

There may not be too many that do, but then again, there is only one Clayton County school that has been named a "National Title I Distinguished School" — Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School.

The College Park school, in its eighth-year of existence, is one of only two Georgia schools to earn the honor this year, state officials announced last week.

The other Georgia school so honored is Fourth District Elementary School, in Surrency, Ga., according to the Georgia Department of Education.

King Elementary is being honored for significantly closing the achievement gap among student groups, according to King Elementary Principal Machelle Matthews. "We are ecstatic about this award," Matthews said. "This just shows the dedication this school's faculty and staff have put into working with our students, to help them do better in school."

Next week, Matthews said, she will lead a group of 10 educators from the school, some of whom have been with King Elementary since it opened, to the National Title I Association annual conference in Tampa, Fla., to formally receive the national honor. The National Title I Association sponsors the awards.

In all, 75 schools earned "National Title I Distinguished School" recognition this year, according to the association's web site. King Elementary got a double honor, because the Georgia Department of Education announced last week that it is a "Georgia Title I Distinguished School," as well.

Officials from the Georgia Department of Education's Title I department are the ones who evaluate student achievement data, and determine which schools meet the National Title I Association's criteria for national honors, Matthews said.

Samone Wright, 9, a fourth-grader at King Elementary, said she was happy her school was being honored. "I was excited because it feels good to be at a school that they voted [that children] learn things," she said.

"Title I" is a status, included as part of the federal government's No Child Left Behind Act, and bestowed upon schools with high percentages of economically disadvantaged students. During the 2009-2010 school year, the year for which King Elementary earned its national award, 84.6 percent of students at the school fell into the "poverty children" category, according to the Georgia Department of Education's web site.

Last year, 87.7 percent of economically disadvantaged students at King Elementary met, or exceeded, state standards on the reading section of the Criterion-Reference Competency Test (CRCT), which is up 2.9 points from the previous year, according to the Georgia DOE web site.

On the English/Language Arts section of the CRCT, 83.5 of the economically disadvantaged students at the school, met or exceeded state standards, which is up 3.9 points from the previous year. The school's economically disadvantaged students slipped 0.2 points, to 74.8 percent of students meeting or exceeding state standards on the CRCT's Math section last year, the data shows.

King Elementary has become a school dedicated to using student data to drive instruction, Matthews said. The conference room for the school's administrators has been transformed into a data-collection center, with performance-data charts covering the walls and white boards in the room.

The school's principal said the credit for King Elementary earning its national honor, however, belongs to the school's teachers and staff, whom she said are devoted to improving the academic performances of the school's students.

"The staff, and the teachers ... it's just phenomenal how dedicated they are to their students," Matthews said. "They will work afternoons, and come in on Saturdays, to help their students [through tutoring]."

"I just think each teacher has that caring concern for the child, and making sure they are able to do well in school," said Jari White, a kindergarten teacher, who has been an employee of the school, first as a paraprofessional, and later as a teacher, since it opened in 2003.

Chandra Hurdle, another King Elementary kindergarten teacher, said the school frequently does academic-themed activities, such as a Math Festival at Halloween, Kindergarten promotion ceremonies, multiple plays, and, of course, the "Q" and "U" wedding ceremonies. She has been involved with the school, first as a parent, and volunteer, and later as an employee, since it opened.

Hurdle said the school tries to offer a "challenging learning experience" for students.

"We try, always, to offer programs that are outside the box," she said. "It's just [a lot of] fun academic events."

Hurdle and White, who will be part of the group going to Tampa, to receive the school's award, said they are over the moon with excitement about King Elementary being named a "National Title I Distinguished School."

"It's outstanding," White said. "It's just wonderful."