COAL TOWNSHIP - For the third year in a row, Shamokin Area High School has been awarded a bronze medal in U.S. News & World Report's Best High Schools rankings. The award means the magazine considers Shamokin Area High School in the top quarter academically of schools nationwide.

The annual rankings are based on the performance of least-advantaged students against other comparable students, state test scores and the percentage of student that pass Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams.

Shamokin Area High School has held its place on the list since 2012 after many years of not making the cut.

"The biggest thing is changes in curricula and the teachers following through," said Shamokin Area High School Principal Chris Venna.

As reported Wednesday, Southern Columbia Area High School was also awarded a bronze medal on this year's list.

Investment of dollars, time

Altering the curriculum to provide a better education at Shamokin Area was not as easy as ordering a new textbook or making new lesson plans; teachers needed to be retrained to use different methods to help students understand more complicated ideas at earlier ages.

"The school board invested millions of dollars into the curricula and the teachers have invested thousands of hours into training," said Ruby Michetti, curriculum coordinator for Shamokin Area School District.

The changes affected the English, math and reading curriculum for students of every age.

Improving these three areas indirectly influenced students' abilities in other subjects, such as science and social studies.

"Math and reading are such core areas that you find them throughout other areas," said Michetti.

As part of the changes, students in elementary school learning what was previously taught to older students.

"Fifth-grade math is now taught in third grade," said Michetti.

Michetti said the younger students easily adapted to the changes and the effects are now apparent through higher exam scores.

Catching up with tutors

Because close to half of the student body is considered economically disadvantaged, a group that often lacks the extracurricular educational opportunities of their peers, the school introduced methods of targeting students who need extra help.

"A big factor for our students is that when they enter our district they are several million words behind, per student," said Michetti.

A tutoring program providing students with the one-on-one attention has helped raise math scores. Within classes, breaking students into groups based on ability has also allowed teachers to target struggling students.

"Differentiated instruction meets the needs of individual students instead of teaching one box, cookie cutter," said Michetti.

Materials taught in class have been reworked to correlate more strongly to the skills students will need following graduation. Michetti said one example of this is the introduction of more nonfiction into the reading curriculum.

"It extends to the real world because everything you read is nonfiction," said Michetti.

Venna said the ambitions of the students in seeking out Advanced Placement and Luzerne County Community College classes also factored in to the school's bronze award.

"Many of our kids are graduating with 24 college credits under their belt," said Venna.

Venna and Michetti agreed that the award was the result of a team effort of the students, administration, teachers and school board.

"Our teachers make it happen and the school board supports that," said Michetti. "That's where the credit needs to go."