Morning Star School has long been one of Bozeman's highest performing elementary schools, yet the principal, teachers and staff are still trying to improve.

Principal Robin Arnold said Tuesday during the School Board's annual lunch visit that the school is trying new programs to improve both students' learning in the classroom and their behavior in the halls, lunch room and playground.

“Always,” Arnold said of Morning Star's efforts to improve. “We're never satisfied.”

One idea teachers use more and more is the “workshop” style of teaching lessons, whether it's math, reading, writing or science, Arnold said.

Instead of lecturing to students sitting passively at their desks, the teacher first gives a 15-minute mini-lesson to students, who are often gathered close by, sitting on a rug on the floor. Then students go out to work with partners, discuss the lesson with each other or confer with a teacher. Students then work independently. Finally the class comes back together to share what they've learned.

“Rather than feeding students knowledge, she's asking students to think,” Arnold said after showing a teacher's workshop-style science lesson. “The kids are totally engaged…. It's so exciting.”

She showed a video of a boy considered a “reluctant reader,” who said a workshop reading lesson had been “fun.” Arnold said she didn't think he would have felt that way last year.

Patti Harrison, teaching coach, said “it's pretty stressful” for teachers with all the changes affecting schools, from the new Montana Common Core curriculum to new ways of teaching. Still, Harrison said, teachers feel the changes are “awesome — they love it.”

Arnold emphasized that teachers increasingly work together in collaborative teams by grade level to figure out which students are doing well, who is struggling and why, and what teachers can do to make lessons more engaging for kids.

Morning Star teachers also work hard to communicate frequently with parents about how their kids are doing, and skills parents may be able to help with. Parent Erica Renslow said parents like “the personal touch,” while Gerri Lewis said it's good to know how her child is doing so she won't feel blind-sided.

“Parents can be the best teacher's assistants,” said School Board Trustee Elizabeth Williamson.

There's no way dedicated teachers can do all they do from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., so many work until 9 at night, Arnold said. “They love what they do.”

On the statewide CRT standardized tests taken last spring, Morning Star students had the second-highest scores in Bozeman: 98 percent tested at grade level or advanced in reading, and 92 percent did that well in math. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Education named the school a national Blue Ribbon school for raising test scores significantly.

The school, with 529 students, also has the smallest population of low-income students, 10 percent, who qualify for free and reduced-priced lunches.

To improve student behavior on the playground and reduce bullying, the school is making the rules clear to everyone, offering recognition for good behavior, and keeping better track of even minor misbehavior. Every morning right after the Pledge of Allegiance, students recite promises to “solve problems, take responsibility, act safely, and show respect.”

Parents are active participants at the school. Last month the parent council's fun run raised $45,000 for the school, Arnold said. Last year the money was used to buy books for the new Common Core and to support ski day, outdoor education, and visits to the Museum of the Rockies and Lewis and Clark Caverns.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at