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Ravell Call, Deseret News
Sixth graders walk to music class at Milford Elementary School, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011. Milford was awarded a Blue Ribbon Award, a national honor.

MILFORD — Temporary students and teachers were once a challenge for Milford Elementary, but with focused instruction and dedication from staff, the small school has seen an impressive transformation.

Located about 30 miles west of Beaver, Milford Elementary was one of two Utah schools to receive the 2011 Blue Ribbon School award in September. The recognition is given by the federal Department of Education to schools that are consistently high-achieving. Two hundred and fifty-six public schools and 49 private schools nationwide received the honor this year, and Soilder Hollow Charter, in Midway, was the other Utah school recognized.

In Milford's case, the school has steadily improved over the past decade and has seen significant progress on testing outcomes, all of which contributed to it being selected.

"This is the first time that any of our schools have received the Blue Ribbon Schools award, and we're very proud," said Ray Terry, superintendent of the Beaver School District.

Terry is also president of the Utah Rural Schools Association and said Milford is a great example of rural schools tackling unique challenges and excelling.

"I believe that rural Utah schools have excellent programs for kids, and they are not recognized for the excellence and the dedication and the hard work that teachers do," Terry said. "To get this type of recognition validates the good work that they do."

With hay and pig farms to the south and a wind farm construction project nearby, a portion of the student body at the city's only elementary school is revolving. Because of the school's small population — it serves a little more than 200 students — one or two families moving in can have a big impact, Terry said. If three second-grade students move in halfway through the year, that's a 10 percent increase in kids for that grade.

While migratory students can present a challenge, especially when it's time to get them prepared for standardized tests, teachers at the school make an extra effort to focus on them.

"You have a small, small school, and then you have a population that comes and goes that adds to your challenges," Terry said said. "One of our challenges is to focus on those kids and get them as much help as we can."

Principal Karen Johnson credits her teachers' dedication for helping turn things around.

"Each one of these teachers goes above the call of duty because they care. They're invested in their kids" she said. "That's huge. That's a huge motivation for kids."

Johnson said teachers have focused on literacy in the early grades, and grades one through three have smaller class sizes for added help.

The school's performance on federal benchmarks has been in the 80 percent to 90 percent range the past four years. From 2002 to 2005, it hovered around the 60 percent to 70 percent range.

Terry said that improvement has to do with a stronger commitment from the staff. Not too long ago, teachers saw Milford Elementary as a temporary stepping stone.

"A lot of teachers would start in Milford Elementary and as soon as an opening would come in a different school, they would move," Terry said. "They were losing a third of their teachers almost every year."

Five years ago, the school's principal at the time decided Milford needed more commitment from its staff. He made it clear to prospective teachers that they were expected to become invested in the community. He cracked down on approving transfer requests, and the school has benefited, Terry said.

"For the most part, they're looking for somebody who will give a longer commitment to that school" he said. "That really stabilized the teaching,"

Johnson, who is new to the school this year, said she has been impressed with the community's involvement.

"We have a very strong community council and parents really follow up with their children based on what is happening at the school," she said. "They are very proactive in the community in general."

Terry said it's been wonderful for the teachers and the community to see the improvement in recent years. Their hard effort has paid off.

"It's work, and I think they've done a good job of that," he said.

Email: mfarmer@desnews.com Twitter: mollyfarmer