Craig elementary school best in state, receives Governor’s Distinguished Improvement Award |

Craig elementary school best in state, receives Governor’s Distinguished Improvement Award

Teachers and staff who were part of the team responsible for helping Sunset Elementary School win a Governor's Distinguished Improvement Award. Pictured, front row, from left are Beth Gilchrist, Amy Jones, Kathy Knez, Erin Knez, Stephanie Zimmerman, Melany Neton, Denise Jenkins and Tasha Bollman; second row, from left, Jill Hafey, Peggy Green, Amber Beaver, Kim Hernandez, Wendy Seely, Brooke Hankins, Denise Seick, Allie LeWarne, Renee Engel, Johnny Ford and Autumn Tatman; and back row, from left Kyla Gifford, Stephanie Murr, Misty Jones, Tilila Gunderson, Alida Crookston, Jennifer Schuessler and Teesha Reidhead.
Sasha Nelson/staff

CRAIG — Writing is the key ingredient in the recipe for success that catapulted Sunset Elementary School from performing below state standards to becoming one of the top-performing schools in the state.

“When people say that Moffat County doesn’t have good schools, they’re wrong,” said Sunset Principal Jill Hafey. “We found the right mixture of ingredients for success.”

The Colorado Governor’s Distinguished Improvement Awards are given to schools that demonstrate exceptional student growth. Sunset Elementary is one of about 125 recipient schools.

“Out of 1007 elementary schools with reported growth scores, Sunset’s ELA (English Language Arts) Median Growth Percentile for all students was the highest in the state at the elementary level. In math, Sunset’s MGP for all students was the 20th highest in the state among the 1,008 elementary schools reporting scores,” said Zach Allen, director of Curriculum, Educator Effectiveness and Shared School.

The school’s success didn’t happen overnight.

“This process started three years ago under new leadership with Jill Hafey. When you have a great leader, you can do great things. We are encouraged to learn from our mistakes, and that has allowed us to think outside the box and not stay in a rut. She trusts us,” said Melany Neton, second-grade teacher and literacy interventionist.

The principal is supportive when mistakes happen, but she draws the line at excuses.

“We started to make excuses when I first came in. I said that wasn’t OK. That’s someone’s baby sitting in that chair. They had a bad night, OK, roll up those sleeves and let’s get the job done,” Hafey said.

Without excuses to stand in their way, staff at Sunset had to quickly alter their teaching strategies.

“As a school, we had a common vision of where we needed to go. Our expectations were posted where students could see them. We all used a common language and believed we could grow,” said third-grade teacher Misty Jones.

A trip to Grand Junction to visit Appleton Elementary School — consistently ranked as one of Colorado’s top schools — helped the team at Sunset cook up a recipe for success. The main ingredient was a new focus on writing.

“Writing takes a depth of knowledge. Writing on computers takes away a layer of difficulty for struggling learners and sets them on the same level as other students,” Hafey said.

A $5,000 gift from Friends of Moffat County Education allowed the school to add a second computer lab.

The computers are no longer used for games. Teachers rearranged schedules to provide every student from second through fifth grades with at least an hour of writing each day.

“We are teaching them how to edit, the same process used by adults. We saw how writing skills flowed to science, math and reading. It was the golden ticket,” Hafey said.

By the time the state testing window-opened, students had developed the skills they needed to perform well.

“It’s not about the test; it’s about the skill we are teaching. The test was just another day. They were already producing what we were striving for — the state standard,” Hafey said.

The school doesn’t leave preparation to chance, instead ensuring every student is given the opportunity to learn.

“Even young learners can be successful with non-fiction writing and finding evidence in text to support their thinking,” said kindergarten teacher Amy Jones.

The entire Sunset neighborhood — leadership, staff, students and parents — got behind the effort.

“We held our kids accountable, and we received support to do that from parents,” said fourth-grade teacher Stephanie Zimmerman.

Sunset’s achievement is helping move the district forward.

“I am ecstatic about the performance. … It was a great step forward for Sunset’s students and contributed to the district’s rating of accredited for the first time since 2009,” said Superintendent David Ulrich.

Sunset is sharing its recipe for success with other schools in Moffat County, while the school strives to maintain and grow student achievement. Staff members are also making plans to visit other high-performing schools to keep improving their recipe for success.

“Our goal is to stay on that governor’s list, because the kids of Moffat County deserve it,” Hafey said. “We truly believe that every kid can learn.”

Contact Sasha Nelson at 970-875-1794 or