A Family Feel in Fullerton: Blue Ribbon Award a collective achievement

A Family Feel in Fullerton: Blue Ribbon Award a collective achievement

By Tyler Dahlgren

NCSA Specialist


When teachers take a job in Fullerton, a rural town with a population just north of 1,000 located about 40 miles northeast of Grand Island, they usually stay awhile. There's just something about the place.

One of four Blue Ribbon Award winners from the state of Nebraska in 2016, and one of just 280 nationwide, Fullerton Elementary has academically thrived on the back of that staggering stability.

“About five years ago or so, we had some people visit and they talked continually about the climate and the way it felt walking through the hallways,” Fullerton Elementary Principal Tammy Carlson said. “I think there is a sense of family amongst our staff, and I think our kids pick up on that.”

Carlson, who along with Fullerton Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Anderson and Title 1 teacher Yetta Sullivan, accepted the Blue Ribbon Award at a ceremony in Washington D.C. last month, has lived, and helped create, that environment for the last 18 years.

“People stay, they don’t leave, and I think it’s because of that type of atmosphere we try to create with the teachers,” Carlson said. “They have a real connection with the community, and there’s a willingness in everyone to pull together.”

Before he was Superintendent, Anderson wore the same hat as Carlson does now. When he was the principal at the elementary school, Carlson took a job as a first-grade teacher. In all, the two have nearly 40 years of combined experience at Fullerton, with academic excellence being a focal point throughout that time.

In 2012, Fullerton Elementary had the top NeSA Test reading score in the state. They followed that up by scoring in the top 10 for the following two years, and you’d better believe there was enthusiasm from students, parents, and the community alike.

“We are one of the districts that was probably a little disappointed when they stopped doing the state rankings because we are very competitive,” Anderson, who has even held NeSA score pep rallies, said. “And so it just gave us a target, and not that we were aiming to be in the top 10 or anything, but it’s just the kind of approach that we took, and it wasn’t difficult to get our kids to take that seriously.”

Or the community, who takes pride in its public schools. Carlson and Anderson both agree that community involvement, especially in a small town, is a key ingredient for a successful school.

“When we get ready for testing, the support is amazing,” Carlson said. “If we’re doing a Christmas program and the kids need costumes, it’s amazing the things that come forward. It’s really a family atmosphere from all aspects and everyone gets into it.”

And so do the parents. Fullerton Elementary has 100 percent participation in parent-teacher conferences and the gymnasium nearly overflows for choir concerts and other student events. A favorite amongst students, and a hectic stretch for cafeteria workers, “Lunch Week” draws so many parents that space in the lunch room comes at a premium.

“It’s unbelievable how many parents will take a day off work just to come eat with their child,” Anderson said. “And that support stretches beyond parents, to grandparents and other relatives. Just little things like that make them feel welcomed.”

The Blue Ribbon nomination was exciting for the elementary school staff, but they remained tight-lipped with the students. After the application process, Fullerton just kept progressing from round to round.

This might happen, thought Anderson and Carlson, who watched the announcement on a live stream on a computer in the principal’s office.

And then it did.

“Right away, we brought all the kids into the gym, and you talk about pride and excitement,” Carlson said of her students, who erupted into celebration.

The next step, Anderson said, was to educate those within the school, and community, on what exactly the Blue Ribbon Award is.

“That kind of wrapped up the other day with a huge community celebration where we explained what it meant to earn that status and all the things that we did through the years that set us up to do it,” Anderson said. “It was never a goal that we set out to do, it was just a result of some of the things that we’ve put into place.”

Many of those things have been implemented over the last eight years, since Carlson took over the principal position. Some of her ideas weren’t the most popular amongst a teaching staff that had teacher’s with 30-plus year tenures, but they always seemed to work.

“When you want a teacher that has been around for that long to change what they’re doing in the classroom, that can be hard,” Carlson said. “One thing we’ve always done as a staff is together as one, and our teachers have always been able to see the bigger picture.”

Just as important as an active community, heavy parental involvement and engaging instruction has been the School Board’s unwavering support. Anderson can’t remember a time, in 23 years, where an idea brought to the school board was rejected.

“We’ve always had our ducks in a row as far as what we want to do and why we want to do it, and they’ve said ‘Great, let us know how it goes’, and we always communicate back,” Anderson said. “I think they’ve taken as much pride in our students’ success as we have.”

That pride is far-reaching, beyond the school and throughout the community, and contagious. It’s what makes Fullerton such a special place, and it’s what keeps people coming back.

“I think we have built a very comfortable and safe environment where people can share what they want to share,” Anderson said. “I think we all just generally care about one another, and I know that may sound corny, but I think there’s a lot to that.”

Anderson knows the importance a school can have in a community. He grew up in Minnesota and taught in Iowa and has seen consolidation and enrollment dips that have ended up in the front doors being locked for good.

“In a small town, the public school is the center and the lifeline to everything,” he said. “It always has been the lifeline of small towns, and I hope it always is.”

Fullerton’s total enrollment is all the way up to 315, much higher than Anderson would have projected 10 years ago. There’s jobs in the area, more businesses now than there was a decade ago.

The public school plays a part in bringing families back to the area, Carlson said. It keeps the town growing.

“These kids are the future of our community, and they are moving back,” Anderson said. “It’s surprising how many students do come back and they have three or four kids, and that’s why we are seeing strong enrollment.”

The devotion to students from teachers, administrators, parents and the community of Fullerton is paying off.

And they have the Blue Ribbon to prove it.