Salk Elementary: Blue Ribbon Superstar Amidst Dramatic Change

While ED’s National Blue Ribbon Schools (NBRS) are all national stars of educational excellence, the challenges faced in their respective communities are not equal. High student achievement earned Merrillville, Indiana’s Salk Elementary School its official status as a 2013 NBRS. However, those accomplishments came about amidst striking demographic changes, making Salk a superstar, in my book.


A Salk first grader explains how he solved his math problem.

Since 2005, Salk’s low-income student population has nearly doubled, to 61 percent. The percentage of minority students – both black and Hispanic – also spiked more than 20 percent over the past 8 years in the Merrillville community, 40 minutes southeast of Chicago. The sheer number of students at Salk swelled from 479 to 674 in the same timeframe. And yet, more than 92 percent of all Salk students met or exceeded reading and math standards in 2012, including subgroups of black and Hispanic children, and students eligible for free or reduced priced meals.

Salk’s principal for seven years, Kara Bonin, said the key ingredient for the school’s success amidst dramatic change in Merrillville was a “no excuses attitude” among all staff, from educators to the clerical staff.

“We make the most of every minute that our students spend at Salk,” said Bonin, who recently became the Merrillville School Corporation’s Director of Elementary Curriculum and Instruction. “Teachers take extra time from their days to research new strategies to help specific students. Secretaries take time from their days to read to kids. Whether our students need remediation, enrichment, or something else – there’s always someone there to help,”

That philosophy grew from alarm among Salk staff, nearly a decade ago, when they began to see increased numbers of children arriving at school who were unprepared to learn. As detailed in the school’s NBRS application, “students were coming to school hungry, homework not completed, and tired from sharing their bedroom with four other siblings.”

“We can’t control what goes on outside of school,” said Bonin. However, the school employs multiple measures to help families overcome barriers to their children’s achievement: Salk’s social worker helps connect families to community resources. The school partners with local churches that donate school supplies to needy families, and with a mobile dentist who provides free cleanings to students. Salk was also named one of Indiana’s Title I Distinguished Schools in 2010, earning it a $50,000 award that funded a Parent Resource Center with a variety of materials for parents to check-out and use at home.

Bonin noted that the district’s early response to changes in the community was critical. “We didn’t wait for problems to occur to adapt our practices,” she said.

One of the school’s first steps was to implement diversity training for all of its staff members.  Professional development remains a Salk cornerstone, with early student dismissals scheduled every Thursday to allow time for staff training and collaboration.

“Leaders at Salk and the Merrillville Schools Corporation created an environment, early on, that prevented the school from falling into the downward spiral that other schools in similar communities have seen,” said Noe Medina, who visited Salk as a consultant to the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color, which also selected Salk for one of just five 2013 awards to schools.

One of the other schools recognized was Merrillville High School. While noting it’s unusual to recognize two schools within the same district, Medina said that the performance numbers justified both awards and paint a consistent picture.

“Salk teachers seem to always be searching for new and better ways to support students,” said Medina. “You can’t just tell teachers to do creative things to help kids without providing them support to do it — whether it’s time, resources or professional development. Kara and district leaders developed a culture that supports that innovation.”

Julie Ewart is the director of communications and outreach for the Great Lakes Region of the U.S. Department of Education