Kindergarten teacher Abi Bengel passes out work sheets to her...

Kindergarten teacher Abi Bengel passes out work sheets to her kindergarten class at East Moriches Elementary on Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Three Long Island elementary schools -- including one headed by an outspoken defender of Common Core academic standards -- won federal "Blue Ribbon" awards Tuesday for exemplary student achievement.

The schools in East Moriches, Glenwood Landing and Munsey Park in Manhasset were among 337 nationwide honored in the annual competition by the U.S. Department of Education.

Winners will be recognized at ceremonies Nov. 10-11 in Washington, D.C.

Charles Russo, principal of East Moriches Elementary School, credited the school's recognition largely to the district's early start in introducing lessons based on national Common Core standards. The school enrolls 420 students in grades K-4.

The East Moriches district began training teachers in the new standards in 2010, even before those guidelines were formally approved by the state Board of Regents in January 2011.

"It's great news -- a tremendous credit to the teachers and the students and their families," said Russo, who also serves as district superintendent. "I do think it speaks to the new curriculum and the way we've embraced it since 2010."

Russo's advocacy of the standards, used by more than 40 states, hasn't always been easy. In November 2013, he was shouted down at a public forum in Manorville by parents and others, many of whom contended that the new standards were too difficult.

State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. described the Blue Ribbon award for East Moriches as "a hard-won honor that signals that Charles Russo and the entire educational team in East Moriches are at the forefront in improving educational outcomes for all our children."

U.S. officials sharpened their criteria for Blue Ribbon awards in 2003, to put more emphasis on students' achievement on standardized tests. Winning schools now must either rank among the highest-scoring in their state, or show that they have done particularly well in closing achievement gaps between high-scoring groups of students and low-scorers.

The Island's three honored schools all qualified for ranking among the highest-scoring in New York State.

Bridget Finder, principal of the winning Glenwood Landing Elementary School, said, however, that her staff puts greater emphasis on helping students become creative, critical thinkers than on test scores alone.

"We have high test scores, but that is really not the focus of our district," Finder said.

The Glenwood Landing school is part of the North Shore district and enrolls 378 students in grades K-5. The school includes an "outdoor classroom," donated by parents, where students grow carrots, corn, tomatoes and other vegetables. The garden is incorporated into lessons designed to encourage analytical thinking -- for example, by asking students why some plants thrive and others do not.

Jean Kendall, principal of Munsey Park Elementary School, said her school's Blue Ribbon award reflects its success in making students and parents feel comfortable in a relatively large building.

The school, in the Manhasset district, enrolls 863 students in grades K-6. In 1995, it had 500 students, and was expanded in 1998 to meet enrollment growth.

Kendall said the school's efforts to foster close ties with local families include a fall schedule of three open-house nights for parents, rather than a single session. That gives the principal a chance to greet each parent personally.

"We're a large school, but we have a small-school feeling," Kendall said.

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