Bozeman's Emily Dickinson School is having a "wow" year.

Principal Sharon Navas told visiting School Board trustees this week that the teachers and staff use "wow" events to help children learn, because young brains are more likely to remember things that are unusual.

So to welcome kids on the first day of school, Navas and her teachers dressed up as characters from "The Wizard of Oz," like the Mayor of Munchkin Land and the Wicked Witch.

And when teachers wanted to encourage students to stop using certain offensive words, they held a mock funeral for the words.

Emily Dickinson is also getting some "wow" results on its test scores. On last spring's statewide tests, 90 percent of Emily Dickinson students scored at grade level or higher in reading, while 84 percent scored well in math.

Low-income students and children in special-education classes also scored well enough to meet state goals, which meant that in all categories the school made "adequate yearly progress," as required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Some 26 percent of Emily Dickinson's students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, about average for Bozeman schools.

Emily Dickinson's low-income students are "defying the odds," said Robin Arnold, associate principal.

Denise Hayman, School Board chair, said she was especially impressed with the test scores among low-income children.

Navas said one reason students do well in reading is the school's "walk to read" program, which divides children into groups according to ability and allows teachers to work on raising skills in each group. She also gave credit to the school's 27 "incredible" paraprofessional aides, most of whom have teaching credentials, and to retired teachers and parents who volunteer at the school.

The number of fifth-graders reading at grade level increased 14 percent over three years. And the number doing well in math rose an astonishing 31 percent in three years.

The school also faces some challenges. On the school district's writing test, 85 percent of first-graders scored well, but only 57 percent of second-graders did. In science, the number of fourth-graders doing well fell from 80 to 64 percent over three years.

Other challenges, Navas said, are that there isn't enough time for teachers to collaborate, and there isn't much free space at the school, which has more than 500 students. The special-education population is growing, and the school suffered a large turnover in staff last year when the new Hyalite Elementary school opened.

One unique feature of the school its outdoor garden, Emily's Garden, which teacher Cindy Bradshaw said is used as an outdoor classroom. Students can go there to learn about the science, plants and birds or the history of plants used by Native Americans.

This year the school's Fall Fun Run raised more than $45,800, "beyond our wildest dreams," Navas said. The money has been used to buy digital projectors for classrooms, and students are going to decide on how to use some of the money for projects at school and in the community.

Another unique strategy is Emily Dickinson's fifth-grade "rotations." Three teachers divide up lessons in science, social studies, writing and art, and students then rotate from one teacher to another. Teacher Lynn Foust said it helps students find a teacher with whom they can connect, and lets teachers teach "something we're passionate about."

Three fifth-grade girls said they like the rotation system because it's fun and will help them get used to the way classes are organized in middle school.

School Board trustees applauded the school's staff. The board has held lunch meetings each of Bozeman's 10 schools, and this was the final school to be visited.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at or 582-2633.