Cherry Valley teacher is a 'star'


John Zsiray/Leader
Joanie Bowen, left, was congratulated by Cherry Valley principal Elaine Meeks at her award ceremony last week.
By Ethan Smith
Leader Staff

A star is shining at Cherry Valley elementary school, and her name is Joanie Bowen.

Bowen was recognized last week as the recipient of the 2006 American Star award, the only teacher in Montana to receive the prestigious recognition in honor of her efforts to implement No Child Left Behind standards.

President Bush made NCLB a top priority during his presidency, and schools are expected to show that students are achieving proficiency in reading and math, with the ultimate goal of achieving 100 percent proficiency across all groups of students. Cherry Valley is one of the tops in the state in reading proficiency -- thanks in part to the efforts of Bowen and others there.

As part of the award ceremony last Thursday, Bowen was recognized by a host of school district officials, her fellow teachers, Cherry Valley students, Rep. Denny Rehberg, and Dept. of Education deputy assistant secretary for policy Darla Marburger, who flew from Washington, D.C. to present the award.

Bowen was selected for her "innovative and successful strategies in implementing the No Child Left Behind Act," Marburger told the audience, explaining that Bowen and other teachers around the country were selected out of a pool of 4,000 nominees.

Marburger and principal Elaine Meeks gave a lot of the credit to Cherry Valley's success in meeting NCLB reading standards to Bowen. Specifically, Cherry Valley was the top school for reading proficiency in the county last year, and one of three schools statewide that had drastically reduced the achievement gap between different types of students -- a key component of NCLB legislation.

"She knows how to adjust her teaching to meet the needs of each student," Marburger said.

Rehberg then took the floor, and talked about growing up in a family of teachers, and how important it was to have gifted educators in the community.

"I still remember my favorite teacher," he said. "Those are the things school does for you."

He told students he'd met with Vice President Dick Cheney earlier in the week, but that being a part of this award ceremony was "more special than being with the vice president."

Fellow primary teacher Danielle Anderson praised Bowen's commitment, both to the students and to helping other teachers succeed, too. Anderson related how important Bowen has been in giving her and other Cherry Valley teachers advice over the years, as they share teaching strategies and confront challenges inherent in the job.

"Mrs. Bowen is an awesome teacher," Anderson told the students. "She thinks you are all unique and brilliant and creative."

Student Bailey Conrad, now a third grader, shared with the school how much Bowen meant to her when she was a primary student. Cherry Valley uses a combined first and second grade environment in primary classes, so most students like Conrad have the same teacher for two years instead of just one.

Bowen said Cherry Valley's primary class setup is a big help in the teaching environment. She was skeptical at first, but after 18 years there, she feels it's the right model to work with -- and a key to helping her students succeed.

"When I started [working in] multi-age I wasn't sure I was going to like it, but I found in Polson that having kids for two years allows you to establish a relationship of trust," Bowen said after the ceremony. "I feel you can achieve more with a student when you already know them when they come in as second graders. I really like the multi-age model."

She credited her coworkers, too, with the school's success in meeting federal standards, saying they work well as a team to meet each child's learning needs individually.

"One really special thing about our school is that we communicate with each other so well. We have a belief that you meet every child at their point of need. That takes a lot of assessment, but you can really encourage kids to reach, to try, and I think at Cherry Valley we do that," Bowen said. "The teachers are really united, and have that overall philosophy about making sure every kid does their best, and they expect a lot of each child."

News of Bowen's award was kept a close secret by Meeks, who knew about the award at the beginning of the year, Bowen said. However, Bowen didn't know she'd won until her name was called.

"It was a huge surprise," she said.

Her family was notified the day prior in order to make sure they were available, while Anderson was only given about 15 minutes notice to prepare her remarks.

"She's such a good friend, so that really meant a lot," Bowen said of her colleague's praise.

Bowen was chosen for the award by a committee of former teachers working at the Dept. of Education, based on input from coworkers and the teacher's success in improving academic performance and making a difference in students' lives, according to a press release from the Dept. of Education.

"It was partly about the reading success, and it had a lot to do with standards I hold in my classroom. I've always had high standards, and hopefully, all teachers have those standards of excellence," Bowen said. "It's an honor to know you are doing OK, and that people appreciate you."

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