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Janell Uerkwitz, Principal, Murdock Elementary School – Lafayette, IN

2015 terrell bell awardeeMurdock Elementary School, a high poverty K–4 school in Lafayette, Indiana, was poised for a state takeover due to low test scores when Janelle Uerkwitz joined the school as principal in 2006. Adapting Patricia Davenport’s 8- Step Model for school improvement, Ms. Uerkwitz and her staff developed an academic calendar, mapped the school curriculum into three-week “chunks,” and developed classroom assessments for each, holding grade-level data meetings every three weeks to analyze student achievement and create reflective action plans. At the same time, she implemented Murdock’s own Positive Behavior Supports program to reinforce basic behavioral expectations and ensure student safety. To further support student learning, Ms. Uerkwitz implemented two 30-minute intervention periods daily and placed interventionists in individual classrooms or grade levels to assist students throughout the day.

By the 2011-2012 school year, Murdock received an “A” school rating and has continued to improve. In 2012, 100% of Murdock students tested at or above proficient on standardized math tests and 97% proficient or better for English/language arts. Each year since then, Murdock Elementary students have achieved passing scores at rates higher than those of their Lafayette School Corporation peers and have exceeded Indiana state average scores. Additionally, students in the bottom 25% in both math and English achieved high growth at rates surpassing state averages. Murdock has also been awarded Four Star school status for several years.
In addition to increasing Murdock’s academic rigor, Ms. Uerkwitz introduced school uniforms, with support for students who cannot afford them; provided all students with school supplies; and expanded opportunities for students to develop other faculties, from daily physical activity to attendance at plays and concerts. Students may choose lessons such as karate and guitar, and support the larger community through park improvements and water landscaping. An open door policy invites students to raise any concerns—emotional, physical, academic, social, or cultural—with her. Quarterly Celebrations of Learning recognize students for outstanding behavior, attendance, and academic achievement and attract strong parent attendance.

Through grants, Ms. Uerkwitz secured a number of benefits to students’ well-being, beginning with twenty minutes of exercise every morning coupled with nutrious “brain break” snacks throughout the day. More than 75 community volunteers from local businesses and churches, as well as retirees and Purdue University students, help Murdock meet its students’ needs, from food-filled backpacks students can take home over the weekend to a cadre of high school and college volunteer tutors.

In collaboration with the Lafayette School Corporation, United Way, and Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, Murdock Elementary is part of Community Commitment to Education, a citywide initiative to support K-3 students in reading, as well as the Born Learning Academy, a school-based series of mini-workshops that supports parents of children 0-5 years in becoming their child’s first teacher. Murdock Elementary is also a partner in Kindergarten Countdown Camps, which prepare children with little or no preschool experience, or who have low pre-literacy scores, for school through a four-week summer camp before they enter kindergarten.

Many Murdock Elementary students are from families living in poverty with limited English language skills. Through Ms. Uerkwitz’s initiative, newly homeless families receive assistance and connections to social services. Spanish-speaking parents take computer-based English language lessons on campus. Her hiring practices are predicated on finding staff open to becoming part of “a big family who loves them and cares for them” and who are passionate about teaching and working with children and families of poverty.