MONTROSE-The student body is diverse, drawing from upscale suburban neighborhoods, high-density Downtown neighborhoods and local mobile home parks. Students include not only native speakers, but those for whom English is a second language.  According to RE-1J Data Administrator Charlotte Blowers, 59 percent of Centennial Middle School students qualify for free and reduced lunches this school year.

No matter their background, however, Centennial Middle School’s 580 sixth, seventh and eighth grade students share one thing in common—a safe learning environment and the resources they need to learn and thrive in the high-tech, professional world that awaits them after high school graduation.

“There are a lot of new and exciting things happening,” acknowledged Centennial Principal Joe Simo, now in his ninth year with Montrose County School District Re-1J. “We are at a happy turning point.”

Centennial voted recently to become a Colorado School of Innovation, and the Montrose RE-1J board of education and Colorado Department of Education have approved the change, which has been championed by Simo, 37, who studied Business Education at Adams State College in Alamosa and taught on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico prior to working in Montrose. Colorado School of Innovation status lasts for three years, after which Centennial has the option to reapply.

“We are still in the school district, and we are not a charter school,” Simo said. “But we have the freedom now to make decisions at the site level, and better adjust to the needs of our students.

“Technology is the driving force, and we are committed to getting more into the building,” he said.

Centennial students use Google Chromebooks in the classroom (the Chromebook program is being rolled out to sixth and eighth grades, and is fully in place for seventh graders), to maximize both learning and available resources.   The initial 135 Chromebooks were purchased with the help of an anonymous donor who gave $9,000, and with a $10,000 2014 Digital Writing Impact Grant to Centennial language arts teacher Greg Whitsell from Montrose Education Foundation. The Chromebooks’ use of Flash memory and cloud-based applications are among the cost-saving measures that deliver the most bang for the learning buck, Simo noted.

“By using Google docs instead of Microsoft Word, our students can access the app from home as well as here,” he said. “We have also been selected by Google for a pilot program, in which they will provide us with $15,000 worth of technology for just $7,500. So we are fundraising, applying for grants, and asking local organizations for help.”

A “blended learning” model that pairs the latest technology with traditional subjects like reading and writing is paying off in student achievement. Colorado Department of Education (CDE) test results show that Centennial students are learning to read and write—very well. Centennial students show the highest growth in writing of any Western Slope school, Simo said.

“Six years ago, Centennial broke the language arts into two disciplines-reading and writing, and doubled the amount of time devoted to them,” he said. “We have a strong focus on all of our core subjects; with Chromebooks in the classroom, our students can publish their writing in a secure blog

“Centennial is our higher achieving middle school,” he added. “We may have a larger population of students on free or reduced lunches, but our students’ reading scores are three percent above state average. Centennial scores in the top tier of assessments statewide-we are currently at 69.1 percent out of 100 percent, and our goal is to beat the state average and grow by two percent every year. Eventually, we will be at 100 percent.”

The framework for CDE’s school performance ratings are based on academic achievement and growth, Simo said, adding that Centennial has earned the state’s highest rating as a “Performance” school.

“I think we are doing some very exciting things with reading,” he said. “We incorporate our technology with traditional instruction, which helps our teachers differentiate and work with students. Half of the time is spent with the teacher, half with an online curriculum. All of our students are being pushed at their specific level and need, and while they are doing that, the teacher works with other groups of students to fill in any gaps.”

Though four models are emerging for blended learning—lab-based, classroom-based, flex-style and pod—Centennial prefers the classroom model, Simo said.

“It helps us redefine the teaching process, by keeping students more engaged, providing real-time feedback, and allowing them to control the speed of the lesson. Classes are larger, but seem smaller because the teacher works with groups.

“And blended learning lowers the cost per pupil.”

To help fund the purchase of more technology, Centennial is reaching out to community organizations, accepting private donations, and will host a spring fundraiser.

Also helping to engage students in the world of writing and literature is Miss Jeffra Walters, a past RE-1J Teacher of the Year and retired Northside Elementary teacher. At Centennial, Walters works with students on a very popular “Shakespeare Project.”

“Miss Jeffra is retired, and Shakespeare is one of her passions,” Simo said. “The project is supported through the 21st Century After School Program–she wanted to continue the work, and we are MORE than happy to have her here.”

Centennial Sixth Grader Dakota Miller, who was attended Pomona Elementary when Simo was there as well, called Centennial’s Principal “pretty good.”

“I like his fundraisers—they are fun,” Miller said. “I don’t like all of the rules he changed, but when he gets money he puts it into our school so we can get new technology and new books.”

Just last week, the Montrose Academic Booster Club awarded grant funds to Centennial for the purchase of 30 more Chromebooks, a management console, one printer, and Teacher Professional Development by Google Personnel.  Simo had submitted the grant request.

For 2015, Centennial Middle is focused on classroom management and school-wide discipline, he said.

“I noticed that a lot of our students were tardy to class,” Simo said. “Each tardy is three minutes—and three minutes is a lot of instructional time. We have reduced the number by 1800 minutes this year—our kids need to be in class and ready to learn.”

Among the ways that tardies have been reduced is by having students with having students attend Saturday school after being tardy to class three or more times.

“It doesn’t make sense to pull a student from class—they need to be learning,” Simo said. Saturday school is a way to provide more direction and focus, and engage in some restorative justice—they do chores around the school that help to make our school better.

“Though I probably will not have them do any more painting.”