Meneley Elementary School Principal Becky Rugger frequently refers to her staff members, students and parents as "rock stars."
"Because we're so talented. My teachers, they have so many talents," Rugger said Wednesday in her office. "We're making student achievement a goal, kind of like rock stars who want that platinum record or whatever. We work hard."
There's also the appeal of alliteration.
" 'Rock star' starts with an 'R,'" Rugger said. "Just like Mrs. Rugger's three 'R's - respect, responsibility and resilience."
But the analogy of pop stardom may be understating it. How many rock stars could set the conditions for double-digit gains in student proficiency in a single year?
That's exactly what Meneley achieved.
In 2011, the school was placed in the "In Need of Improvement" category, the lowest designation of No Child Left Behind, after landing on a federal watch list the year before.
Because Meneley receives Title I funding, federal assistance for low-income populations, the school had to offer parents an alternative at no extra cost, as stipulated in the "school choice" provision of No Child Left Behind. The families of 35 students chose to leave and attend either Scarselli or Pinon Hills elementary schools.
As Meneley's new principal at the time, Rugger said it was a difficult situation.
"A couple of those students came back before the school year even started," she said. "But it was hard. I support parent choice, but I also know in my heart that we have a great school."
The all-embracing, energetic 52-year-old has a personal connection to the Meneley Mountain Lions. Her career began as an elementary school teacher in Wyoming in 1984. When she moved to Douglas County in the 1990s, she taught kindergarten and first grade at Meneley before transitioning to administration. She eventually served as assistant principal at Carson Valley Middle School and Douglas High.
Rugger returned home in 2010 after an administrative stint in Alpine County.
"I live in the Gardnerville Ranchos, two blocks from here," she said. "This is my school."
When she returned, she knew the school had great potential, was making strides, but also was being penalized for performance lapses in specific subpopulations. Under No Child Left Behind, it didn't matter if a majority of students were meeting target scores; failure in one or two categories could stigmatize an entire school.
"I think we really wanted to show our true colors," Rugger said. "We really needed to drill down the data to where those needs were, because those tiny subcells could kick us down a whole category."
Rugger focused on ESL and special education subpopulations, summoning her staff to meet the challenges head-on.
In the 2011-12 school year, Meneley ran a pilot program for ESL learning called High Quality Sheltered Instruction. The program entailed a part-time instructor who trained teachers on site how to better engage students for whom English is a second language.
"Now, it's district-wide," Rugger said. "All my staff opted to do it, to put in the additional time and become HQSI certified. Some of them missed the after-school training and decided to come in on Saturday. That says a lot about our staff. For them to step up to the plate is a big deal for me."
Rugger used Title I funding for math and reading tutors, in addition to a full-time reading specialist and a full-time reading instructor. A special assignment teacher was further used as an "interventionist" to target "the almost-theres."
Promethean boards, digital, interactive whiteboards installed in classrooms that year, enhanced the overall instructional effort.
"I hoped for change, but I didn't know it would happen to this degree," Rugger said.
The school made a dramatic about-face. In the last year of No Child Left Behind, Meneley, along with every school in the district, made Adequate Yearly Progress.
The results speak from themselves. Out of nine Criterion-Referenced Test categories, the school saw year-over-year growth in eight. The largest gains in proficiency came in fifth-grade math, from 50 percent proficiency to 70.1 percent, in sixth-grade math, from 61.6 percent proficiency to 92.9 percent, and in fifth-grade science, from 62.5 percent proficiency to 81.8 percent. The only negative category was fourth-grade reading, which dropped minimally from 75.7 percent proficiency to 73.9 percent. The remaining reading categories all saw modest growth in the range of 1-6 percent.
According to the Nevada Schools Performance Framework, which is the growth model developed to replace No Child Left Behind, Meneley's overall proficiency in reading jumped from 69 percent in 2010-11 to 72 percent in 2011-12. Proficiency in math jumped from 62 percent to 79 percent in the same time period.
"It's not about me," Rugger was quick to say. "The teachers all wear their magician hats. I just give them the opportunity to do their magic."
Despite last year's victories, Rugger warned of "implementation challenges" to come.
"Common Core State Standards are being rolled out in all grade levels, and it's a tough job," she said. "It's a shift to higher-level thinking, and that's hard."
In her office, Rugger keeps a beige graduation cap that's been signed by her staff.
"Our ultimate goal is for kids to graduate from high school and be college- and career-ready," she said. "That starts here in elementary school."