When Ken Schutz entered fifth grade in Tekoa nearly 40 years ago, he was excited to have a male teacher. That teacher was Wayne Roellich, who never imagined that one day he’d travel to Washington, D.C., together with one of his then-fifth-graders, to receive a prestigious national education award.
When Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave a Blue Ribbon Award to Tekoa High School and another to P.C. Jantz Elementary School in Odessa in September, he brought Roellich and Schutz back together again: Schutz is the K-12 principal in Odessa and Roellich is now the high school principal in Tekoa.
“It really is a case of what a small world we live in,” said Schutz. “I just couldn’t believe it when I saw both our schools had gotten the award.”
Schutz has fond memories of growing up in Tekoa, where his mom still lives and where Roellich began his career as a young teacher and baseball coach.
“Wayne is an amazing person. He’d take all the kids on the bus to the baseball meets and then coach four games, all on his own,” said Schutz, adding that they stayed in touch at professional conventions and meetings over the years.
The Blue Ribbon Schools Program honors schools based on one of these criteria: they have high-performing students regardless of their backgrounds, based on state or national tests; or the school has at least 40 percent of students come from a disadvantaged background yet continually improve performance on state or national tests.
“It really is an incredible honor to receive this award,” said Roellich, who has been teaching in Tekoa for 41 years. “We are the only high school in the state that got it. And we are very proud that we can claim Ken Schutz as a graduate, too.”
Schools are nominated by the state superintendent and following the nomination they have to complete an extensive package of student data and other information about the school, which is then sent to the Secretary of Education in Washington, D.C., where the final selection is made.
Roellich said he believes Tekoa was nominated because of its outstanding test scores – nearly every student passed the WASL – and because the school involves parents, teachers, coaches and community members in working with the students.
“It’s not from the top down here,” said Scott Eaton, school counselor at Tekoa. “Mr. Roellich invites that kind of environment that fosters teamwork. He gets a lot of input from everyone and that’s something I enjoy about being here.” Eaton was heavily involved in compiling the information for the Blue Ribbon nomination package.
“It took a long time, maybe three or four months,” he said.
The student council is involved in planning, too. Right now, one debate is over whether the campus should be open or closed.
“It really is a close community here,” said Jessica Wilson, 18, the student body president. “I love it here. I love that when you walk down the hallway everyone knows your name.”
Tekoa is a combined middle and high school where students go from seventh to 12th grade. There are 10 teachers and 100 students at Tekoa – the freshman class counts about a dozen kids – and technology is a priority: the school has one computer for every two students.
“Many students have the same teachers throughout their stay here,” said Roellich. “And the teachers must like it here, too. We have a very low turnover rate among our teachers – they tend to just stay.”
Schutz oversees 205 kids in kindergarten through grade 12; the elementary school received the award. Both schools have seen declining enrollment over the past decades but have stabilized at their current numbers.
He shared many of the same things about P.C. Jantz Elementary School as Roellich did about Tekoa.
“Bottom line what it means to me to get this award is that the teachers have been working hard to develop relationships with the community, with the parents and the kids,” said Schutz. “The Blue Ribbon Award is recognizing a whole bunch of people.” Dropout rates, for instance, are very low in rural Eastern Washington, said Schutz.
“I can think of maybe one or two students who didn’t finish high school here,” said Schutz. “It’s very different from a city school. We have an advantage by size, even with some very high-need kids, because we know the kids, the parents – we know everyone.”