Even in a high-performing school district like Bozeman’s, Morning Star School shines.

Bozeman’s largest elementary school with 550 students, Morning Star students had the highest performance on state reading and math tests again this spring.

In reading, 99 percent of its students tested at grade level or higher, up from 98 percent last year. In math, 94 percent of its students tested at grade level or higher, holding steady with last year, principal Tom Siegel told visiting School Board trustees Tuesday.

The reading results are “awesome,” Siegel said. Out of 270 students in third, fourth and fifth grades, only five were struggling with reading.

In fact, one of the biggest challenges the school continues to face is challenging kids who are high achievers. It’s a myth that serving gifted or advanced learners is elitist, Siegel said. If they’re not engaged, they can become disruptive.

“It’s as important to meet the needs of advanced learners as children who are struggling,” Siegel said.

One reason for the school’s high performance is that it has small populations of low-income students and students with disabilities, too small to be counted separately under the rules of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Only 11 percent of Morning Star children qualified for free and reduced price lunches in 2010, the lowest poverty rate among Bozeman schools, according to the annual financial report. Located near the Museum of the Rockies, the school has a substantial number of kids whose parents are university professors.

Studies have found family income is the leading factor in students’ success, Siegel said.

But a lot of the credit also goes to teachers. Morning Star was named a federal Blue Ribbon School in 2009 for making dramatic improvements in student achievement. Then-principal Nonnie Hughes said the school had made a lot of changes after 2004, when only 42 percent of students scored well in math.

Siegel gave credit to teachers who are unusually willing to embrace new ideas, who work extra hours at night or early mornings and who show students they care.

“Kids learn best in a classroom where kids love their teacher and feel the teacher loves them,” Siegel said.

While the school’s record is stellar, it still has room for improvement. Siegel said the school fell short of its goal of 97 percent student proficiency in math, and he is concerned that science scores have dropped, from 95 percent proficient two years ago to 83 percent this year.

This school year, Siegel said, teachers are eager to adopt the school district’s new goal, that every child should show growth of 3 percent or better.

To make that happen, the school is using a variety of strategies. Its “ace in the hole” is teaching coach Patti Harrison, he said.

Harrison showed a video of kindergartners to show that even the youngest students can use what they’ve learned to solve problems with higher thinking skills. Children were told their teddy bears had colds and needed beds, blankets, space and tender loving care. The kids in the video were excited about solving the bed shortage for their bears.

Third-grade teachers said their students are learning problem solving through service projects. Lola Jeffers’ students raised $1,000 to buy toys for Japanese children who lost everything in the earthquake and tsunami. Kathy Close’s students plan to work with the Spring Meadows assisted living home to make it easier for elderly residents to get outdoors.

“It was touching and very exciting,” Denise Hayman, School Board chair, said after the school’s presentation.

Morning Star is “a high performing school,” Hayman said, that has an “excellent staff, willing to put in extra hours.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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