The gym at Slade Elementary School on Tuesday morning was almost completely silent, minus the occasional giggle followed by a loud “Sh!”

It was an impressive feat considering every student, teacher and school administrator were packed inside.

The school orchestrated a surprise assembly to celebrate and announce Slade’s principal, Heather Moro, had been named Wyoming’s 2020 National Distinguished Principal by the Wyoming Association of Elementary and Middle School Principals.

Once Moro entered the gym, it erupted with yells of “congratulations!” as students held up posters and signs to celebrate the achievement.

After the whirlwind celebration, Moro told the Boomerang she felt “just amazing.”

“We’re a community here; we support each other,” she added. “The fact that they could keep that a secret and pull it off so well was just mind-blowing to me.”

The WAEMSP has been the state’s professional education association since 1956, representing 209 elementary and middle school principals throughout Wyoming. It and 18,000 other members worldwide are also involved with the National Association of Elementary School Principals, based out of Washington, D.C.

“Being recognized as a National Distinguished Principal is not only a prestigious compliment, it is, I believe, the highest praise a principal can receive from their peers in the profession,” WAEMSP executive director Kenny Jones said during the surprise assembly.

Moro is a graduate from the University of Oregon with a principal endorsement from the University of Wyoming. She got her start serving as a middle school social studies and English-Language Arts teacher in Washington, later becoming a special education teacher at Rock River School.

After serving as Rock River School’s principal for three years, she became Slade’s principal in 2008.

A process full of the unexpected, Moro said she was surprised when she first found out Albany County School District No. 1 superintendent Jubal Yennie nominated her for the award.

“We’ve got outstanding leadership in Albany County schools,” Yennie said during the assembly. “It’s my pleasure to certainly have nominated Heather for this award. She has done some outstanding work for the school district.”

Moro is the 40th principal to earn the award and the fourth from Laramie. The winner is chosen by fellow Wyoming principals through a statewide process conducted by the WAEMSP.

Once she was nominated, Moro was tasked with turning in a 26-page application and then had an agonizing wait for the results.

Moro said she once served on the committee of principals that decides each year’s winner, but “thought the process was more in December.”

“I kind of just assumed I didn’t get it,” she said. “This is a total surprise to me.”

She and winners from other states will have the chance to visit Washington, D.C., in October to participate in activities and celebrations to honor the educators.

Tuesday’s assembly was a sea of shirts, balloons, streamers and cookies in bright green and yellow, Slade’s school colors. The celebration included a special video and presentation made with the help of Slade students detailing all the ways Moro makes the school a better place.

Keri Shannon, principal of Stocktrail Elementary School in Gillette and the 2019 winner, noted how helpful Moro was as a mentor when Shannon first moved to Wyoming 10 years ago to be a principal.

“By her guidance, everyone is successful,” Shannon said before giving Moro her plaque. “And it doesn’t just stop at Slade; everyone is successful because she takes leadership throughout the community and the school district but also throughout the state, where she helps all kinds of principals get better at their craft.”

According to a WAEMSP news release, the criteria for winning the award requires potential honorees to be “active principals of schools where programs are designed to meet the academic and social needs of all students and where there are firmly established community ties with parents and local business organizations.”

Moro’s honor comes as Slade Elementary’s reputation stays high in the eyes of the Wyoming Department of Education.

For the 2018-2019 school year, Slade joined the 14% of schools statewide classified as “exceeding expectations” — the state’s highest school for schools under the Wyoming Accountability in Education Act.

For that school year, Slade had the second highest “growth” score of all schools in the state — meaning the amount of improvement that students individually made from the scores those same students recorded in 2017-2018.

At a Jan. 8 school board meeting, Moro and other staff from Slade told board members that the school’s success is largely a credit to the systems that have been established in the last decade.

Like other elementary schools in ACSD No. 1, Slade has structured its teaching around “professional learning communities,” a system of collaboration in which classroom teachers and other educators at the school regularly meet to coordinate their instruction and then evaluate those efforts based on students’ performance.

“We knew that building a culture of collaboration was not going to be easy and it wasn’t going to happen overnight, but I’ve never worked with another group of people who were more up for a challenge,” Title I teacher Mariah Learned told the school board this month. “It makes you feel vulnerable when you see your students scores projected onto a smart board. You hope someone’s not judging you, but that vulnerability was short-lived within Slade because of the growth mindset of our staff.”

Moro said her staff’s mindset of not giving up on any student is also a factor in the school’s success.

“I’m proud of our staff for believing in each other and our kids, and that our kids are willing to try and they know they don’t have to get it right the first time, but that they can keep working on it and they’ll get it eventually,” Moro told the Boomerang Tuesday.

During the assembly, Moro made a point to thank the teachers at Slade for all their hard work.

“Our team of teachers, I feel like we’ve been together for so long now that we’re a family, with all the hardships and the celebrations that a family creates,” she said. “That helps us do all the things we need to do for all these students every day. This is a group of people that believe in you, that believe in each other and help each other grow, so I just want to say a huge thank you. I’m so proud to be your principal every single day.”

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