By Jeff Commings


Two Tucson elementary schools and a middle school have won first place in the 2005 Golden Bell Awards, which honor exemplary academic programs from kindergarten to 12th grade.
Twelve Arizona schools were honored Thursday by the Arizona School Boards Association, with a winner and runner-up in each of six grade levels. In addition to Tucson's three local winners Agua Caliente Elementary School, Laguna Elementary School and Sierra Middle School Cottonwood Elementary was named a runner-up.
Nominees are selected by district peers and judged by a panel of Arizona educators and must have been in operation for at least two years and demonstrate teacher creativity. The awards were given at a joint conference of the Arizona School Boards Association and the Arizona School Administrators in Glendale.
Agua Caliente Elementary School in the Tanque Verde Unified School District won in the pre-kindergarten-through-third-grade category for its "Writing to Communicate" program, which teaches kids the fundamentals of writing in kindergarten and progresses to making multimedia presentations in third grade. The curriculum culminates with shared reports at a Young Author's Celebration at the end of the school year.
"The difference between us and other districts is we do it through application," said Principal Diane Lemly. "If we're going to teach them how to write thank-you cards, they have to actually write a thank-you card. If you're going to learn something, you're doing it and using it."
In the fourth-through-sixth-grade category, Laguna Elementary in Flowing Wells won for its plant club, which started to build a pond ecosystem on campus in 2003. The 13,000-gallon fish pond is installed and being enjoyed by students and faculty, said science and math teacher Michael Marbut. But more rewarding than teaching plant and animal life, he said, is the pride it gave students in their school.
"In another community, the kids might have torn (the plants) up after school," said Marbut. "The kids take a great deal of pride in what they've done. It's turned a lot of kids around."
The two-way dual language program at Sierra Middle School in Sunnyside Unified won for teaching core subjects to native English speakers and English language learners in two languages. Coordinator Suzanne Kaplan said the 6-year-old program has worked mainly because all students have become bilingual and the teachers have skills to help students learn the second language and core subjects without falling behind.
"It brings a lot of diversity into the classroom," Kaplan said.
Earning runner-up distinction was Vail's Cottonwood Elementary, for its REACH program, which assesses individual student needs and helps teachers adjust instruction to help all students achieve the same success.
Schools in Maricopa County made up for most of the remainder of the winners list.
Nominations for next year's Golden Bell Awards will be accepted starting next spring.
● Contact reporter Jeff Commings at 573-4191 or