Following a rigorous two-year application process, Washington Elementary in Cloquet was validated as a Minnesota School of Excellence (SOE) heading into the 2019-20 year along with seven other schools around the state.

The Minnesota Elementary School Principals Association validates schools that meet national standards in six areas: leadership, vision, student learning, culture of adult learning, data and decision making, and community engagement.

Washington Elementary Principal Robbi Mondati considers the validation and the school's successes to be a reflection of the school district.

“I think a lot of the things we have highlighted throughout our school are district-wide achievements," Mondati said. "Cloquet has extremely strong schools, and we have strong support. I think a lot of the strengths that came through in our application were because of that.”

Mondati also recognizes that the way the school acknowledges students' mental and physical health also sets it apart. The school has a leadership team that works hard to ensure the building’s culture is founded on a system that supports the physical and mental health needs of students and staff.

The system, called "positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS)," is used by schools across the country and each school might have a different approach. At Washington, “mindful breaks” are implemented into every teacher’s daily schedule in which teachers guide students through a brief mindful activity.

“It's just a way to help kids regroup and get themselves refocused and moving forward with their day,” Mondati said. “I think we've had a lot of positive response...We're teaching them healthy habits, that our brains need a break and our bodies need a break.”

Another aspect of Washington's PBIS implementation takes the form of a box of sensory tools called “calming kits.” Each classroom is stocked with a box that contains various toys and reminder cue cards students can use when they need help getting back on track.

Every classroom at Washington Elementary has a "calming kit" students can use when they need help focusing. The kits includes various sensory tools and reminder cue cards. Andee Erickson / Pine Journal
Every classroom at Washington Elementary has a "calming kit" students can use when they need help focusing. The kits includes various sensory tools and reminder cue cards. Andee Erickson / Pine Journal

Students can also visit the “Paws Room,” where a behavior intervention staff member will talk to students who could benefit from having somebody to talk to. The room is used for positive check-ins as well.

Addressing the wellness of a child also requires knowing how to best serve students who have undergone childhood trauma, Mondati said, and Washington teachers and staff members have undergone several trainings through Carlton County’s restorative justice program to do just that.

SOE Committee Chair Tami Staloch-Schultz said this is an area where many schools still struggle.

“Schools are having to do more with social emotional instruction for students before they can get to the academics, and Washington has a really good plan and tools for that,” Staloch-Schultz said.

Schools across the country are also working on strengthening support for students with diverse backgrounds as well as strengthening their technology implementation plans, Staloch-Schultz said, and Washington has proved to have made strides in both.

Through the district’s American Indian Education Program, students at Washington engage with the history, culture, art and language of the Anishinaabe.

“It really is not just something we offer to our American Indian families, but it's a part of who we are as a school community and our Indian Education department does a great job of making that a part of our school community,” Mondati said.

In terms of technology implementation, the school offers a mobile devices for every third and fourth grader, while every classroom is equipped with a Smartboard and Apple TV.

Additionally, the school has a makerspace lab where teachers can lead their classrooms in science, technology, engineering, art and math projects. Most schools use the acronym STEM, but Washington has added art to the equation, so the school uses "STEAM."

Referencing the school’s test scores, Mondati said academically students at Washington stand out in math. She believes that’s due in part to teachers using the makerspace lab, where students can participate in hands-on tasks and recognize how engineering exists in the world.

“It’s a lot of creation, building and being hands-on with less direction so they can really tap into their own creativity,” Mondati said. “Though it’s still structured, it’s structured creation.”

Staloch-Schultz said the Minnesota Elementary School Principals' Association encourages all schools to go through the SOE application process because it gives schools an opportunity to look closely at areas of strengths and areas in need of growth.

SOE validation expires after seven years, as educational standards are always changing. Churchill Elementary in Cloquet was validated as an SOE school in 2007.