As the first year of the Academy of Freshman Exploration at Grand Island Senior High comes to a close, a national coalition has named the academy one of the best in the country.

At an assembly Wednesday, GISH announced the freshman academy achieved National Model Status from the National Career Academy Coalition due to it meeting the National Standards of Practice for Career Academies.

This is the first time ever a U.S. freshman academy has earned this status.

GISH Executive Principal Jeff Gilbertson said that in April, Jay Steele, president of the National Career Academy Coalition, brought a team to the high school to review the freshman academy based on the coalition’s National Standards of Practice.

“Basically, they graded us out with a rubric,” Gilbertson said. “They looked at everything such as our school, our students, student learning, our vision and our goals. Dr. Steele interviewed a group of students, parents and teachers, and attended the teacher PLC (professional learning communities) meetings. They also worked with administrators and school board members. At the end of the day, we received the highest rating possible.”

Maggie Mintken, principal of the GISH Academy of Freshman Exploration, said it is “very gratifying” for the academy to be recognized for all the hard work and “countless hours” that have been put into ensuring it meets students’ needs.

“There are 10 standards of national practice,” she said. “Our teachers went above and beyond and we were recognized for that for making connections. One of our goals was to have a connection to each and every one of our students and to make them feel connected to an adult in the building. When the external team came in and reviewed us, that was one of the things they commented on.”

Grand Island Public Schools Superintendent Tawana Grover said she was honored to be able to celebrate the freshman academy’s achievement Wednesday. She added the honor recognizes the triumphs, transition and transformations that have been made in regard to the academy.

“I remember that at the beginning of the school, we said that not only were you making history, but you were going to set the standard and set the bar. Boy, have you blown us away,” Grover told the freshman students. “You are a shining example of what it means to ‘Be Grand.’ We are so proud of you. To Dr. Mintken and all of the teachers, we are so grateful to have you here, leading our young people into their next journey.”

Freshman Aaliyah Cuellar said she enjoyed being in the first-ever GISH freshman academy class.

Cuellar said she and her classmates did not know what to expect from the academies at first, but it became easier as teachers were there for them.

“All of our teachers always helped us, guided us through high school and told us what was going to happen,” she said.

Freshman Makenna Graber said the freshman seminar class helped her and her classmates meet new people, learn about college and see how their grade point averages affect college.

“The freshman seminar classes got us prepared for a lot of stuff, especially when they took us to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to tour the campus,” Graber said. “It showed us that it is very important for all of us to have a plan for after high school and keep our mindset on our positive output for the future.”

She said next school year, she will be a part of the Academy of Business and Communication, with the intent of going into business or entrepreneurship.

Cuellar said she will be in the Academy of Education, Law and Public Safety for mental health and counseling.

“I chose mental health and counseling because I want to become a therapist,” she said. “I enjoy helping people who just need someone to talk to or need someone to hold their hand throughout the way. I just enjoy helping people.”

GISH counselor Corey Farlee said there were “a lot of bumps” in the transition to the freshman academy and some “frustrating moments,” but that the first year of the academy was a successful one.

Farlee said she learned that relationships are No. 1. Mintken echoed her comments.

“It is not only student-to-student relationships, but student-to-staff, and staff-to-staff relationships as well,” she said. “This model allows our teachers to function in a team. Then, they also have that content PLC (professional learning community) time. That ability to learn on a daily basis from your colleagues and push each together to be the best we can be is the greatest thing about this model.”

Mintken added the transition to the freshman academy has led to a large growth in student achievement scores and attendance rates.

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