Thomas Harrison Middle School wins improvement award

ESL teacher Heather Kimberlain with seventh-grade student Balen. (Photo by Bob Adamek)

By Kate Szambecki, contributor

When Harrisonburg schools went online last spring due to the pandemic, several teachers from Thomas Harrison Middle School continued to meet with students – outside and socially distanced – in the school parking lot or outside the kids’ houses. One of these teachers was Heather Kimberlain, who teaches English as a second language (ESL).

“We tried to maintain connections and make sure that kids were still learning,” Kimberlain said. “Everyone has worked really hard and been very thoughtful about the kind of educational experience we can provide.” 

It is this kind of care for students that Kimberlain believes led the school to win a Continuous Improvement Award from the Virginia Board of Education. The board gives this award to schools whose students have made dramatic improvements in reading, math, and science; and those that have reduced chronic absenteeism. The award also emphasizes student engagement and innovation. 

Thomas Harrison students’ test scores in math and science have risen steadily over the past three years, and they are meeting minimum state requirements in all subjects. Chronic absenteeism has gone down one whole percent each year for the last three years, and is now at 9.3%. 

Principal Donald Vale told The Citizen that the improvements have been a team effort. 

“We have a very, very dedicated staff who cares a great deal about the success of students,” Vale said. “If you don’t have a strong trusting, caring, loving relationship [with students], you’re not going to get very far academically or in anything else. That’s a critical piece to the successes that we have – we have a staff that’s capable of doing that very well.”

Krystal Muterspaugh, an instructional coach and reading specialist, said that teachers working collaboratively was a huge factor in improving test scores. Recently, teachers in various disciplines have incorporated writing into their curricula in order to boost test scores in their weakest areas.

“When we wanted to improve our scores, it wasn’t about ‘this teacher needs to do this.’ It was, ‘what can we do as a team?’” Muterspaugh said. “All teachers really whole-heartedly embraced needing to support our kids.”

Each year, the school’s improvement committee meets to look at their academic performance and develop an action plan that they then have to clear with the state. The committee includes school staff across all grade levels and subjects. 

“We start our school year with reviewing our data, and we acknowledge that we have some challenges,” Vale said. “We celebrate the ones we have successes with, and we try to build school improvement plans for those we don’t have successes with.”

Kimberlain cites this intentional decision-making process as a key part of student success. Teachers share their expertise with one another and work together to solve problems, as well as demonstrate a deep care for their students’ wellbeing. This is especially strong in the ESL department, one place where the middle school has seen dramatic improvement. 

“We meet weekly and we look at every student,” Kimberlain said. They ask, “how can we ensure that every student has a quality, equitable education?”

Vale emphasized that, while he is proud of the students’ academic achievements, his priority is their holistic development as people.

“We work hard at the things we have to work at, like the SOLs, but that’s not all there is,” he said. “Although it’s important to look at those things and certainly use them, education is much, much bigger than that. It’s not how they do in English or math or science or anything else. How do we develop them as whole students? How do we help them prepare for their futures? How do we help them become active learners and seek new information? They are moving from concrete learners to abstract thinkers. They question the world around them, question the people around them, and they move from their parents to ‘who am i going to be?’”

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