By RACHEL C. DOVE
DINGESS - Principal Donald Spence, his staff and the entire student body of Dingess Elementary had much to celebrate Friday morning, when they were informed that they were one of only eight schools within the state who had been recognized and awarded the 2012 prestigious “West Virginia School of Excellence Award.”
First-grader Addison Messer summed up everyone’s feelings when he excitedly yelled “God All Mighty – We made it!”
Messer, along with the 185 other students who attend Pre-K through fourth-grade at Dingess Elementary are an exceptional group of kids who reside in one of the most rural and poverty stricken areas of Mingo County.
That’s one reason that Principal Spence and his staff go above and beyond the call of duty each and every day to instill in the students that, no matter where they come from, no matter what their financial or social status is or what their lives at home are like, they all have the ability and the opportunities to overcome and excel.
Apparently, this is exactly what the students must have done to have earned the West Virginia School of Excellence award.
Spence has been the principal at Dingess for six years and had filled that position in other locations for another seven before accepting this assignment that he’s very quick to tell you he loves.
As he addressed the student body on Friday and relayed the good news, you could see and hear how proud he was of each and every student, and of his faculty members.
The criteria listed for a school to be considered as one of excellence states the following rules:
“Schools of Excellence offer instructional programs meet rigorous academic standards, have supportive and learning-centered school environments, and demonstrate student achievement results that are significantly above the average for comparable schools. These schools must show improvement in student achievement, improvement in standardized test scores, implementation of advanced or innovative programs, implementation of the goals and purposes of jobs through education, improvement of parent and community involvement, improvement in parent, teacher and student satisfaction, improvement in student attendance and other factors which promote excellence in education.”
“I sat down with our teachers when we decided to apply for this award, and we developed a document that answered the 25 questions included in the application based on how we teach our kids,” said Spence.
“The applications are reviewed by a designated panel with the West Virginia State Department of Education,” explained the principal. “They look for things such as how innovative the teachers are with their lesson plans. They narrow their selection, and then plan site visits to the schools still in the competition.
“When they visit the schools, they look at all aspects of the children’s education including the building that houses the school and the teaching curriculum. They also interview teachers, students and community members. They observe the activity in the classrooms to be able to get a true feel for what our teachers are doing and the response of the students.”
The principal stated that when they made the decision to compete for the award, they knew it would require a lot of work by everyone involved.
“We agreed that win or lose, we would still benefit because we would be a better school.
“I’m very proud for and of our kids, our staff and our entire community,” said the principal.
Patty Riffe, who has served as the elementary school secretary for 27 years shed a few tears of joy when the announcement was made that Dingess had been chosen to receive the award.
“We’ve had some bad publicity for our school, and for our community. It’s time our students and teachers are recognized for their accomplishments,” stated Riffe.
“This is truly poetic justice.”
Riffe remarked about the size of their student body and stated that she personally feels the smaller classroom settings make for a better learning environment, and said she has seen many students fall through the cracks in larger schools because there is no way that teachers can adequately provide one on one time with a student that may need a little extra help.
“There’s something to be said for smaller numbers, and our school is a prime example of that.”
Spence commented that one key to his school’s success is that he has veteran staff members who know each and every child, their families and the community. Blend those qualities with the new teachers who have hit the ground running and who are filled with innovative ideas and strategies and you end up with a combination that meshes well together, said Spence.
Barbara Baisden, one of the teachers at Dingess remarked that in her eyes, and now hopefully in the eyes of all of Mingo County, they will realize that this school is a jewel that has been hid inside of a rock for far too long.
“It’s time for these kids to shine and for those who aren’t familiar with our school to see what we see, which is a wonderful group of students and teachers who have worked really hard to achieve this goal,” said Baisden.
Spence concluded by saying that far too often, smaller schools, especially those located in rural communities are overlooked. As of Friday, the principal is more pleased than he said he could ever express with the outcome of the excellence award competition and is hopeful that this will thrust Dingess Elementary into the spotlight that they so rightfully deserve.
“We may have a small school, and our community is far from wealthy,” stated the secretary. “But one thing we have an abundance of here is love, and that’s why when our students leave here to go on to other schools, they come back for a visit and tell us that no other place they attended made them feel that loved, cared for and safe.
“There’s no greater compliment in the world.”