Basalt Middle School has been named a 2015 Colorado Trailblazer School to Watch, a recognition based as much on the school’s culture as its test scores.

This recognition places the school in rare company. Only 16 of Colorado’s 505 middle schools have received the designation over the years, along with just 350 middle schools out of 13,000 in 19 participating states. The schools are selected not just for academic excellence but also for qualities related to school culture, social equity and organizational cohesiveness.

These characteristics were verified during a site visit by a team of educators who observed teachers in the classroom and discussed educational strategies with Basalt Middle School teachers and administrators.

“The evaluation team was especially impressed with the instructional practices they saw in our classrooms and how our ‘growth mindset’ school culture was reflected in every part of our school,” said Principal Jeremy Voss. “They also singled out our student work ethic and the compassion students demonstrate to each other and their community.”

Basalt Middle School first applied for and received this three-year distinction in 2012, so the 2015 honor is even more valuable. According to Diane Lauer, Colorado Schools to Watch state coordinator, it’s harder to earn a second designation because a school must demonstrate a continued upward trajectory.

The Colorado Trailblazer program is run by the Colorado Association of Middle Level Education, which in turn partners with the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform. Together, these organizations search for middle schools that demonstrate the right characteristics and present the best schools as examples to the rest.

Deborah Kasak, Forum executive director, said Basalt Middle School and other schools to watch “have shown that schools can meet high academic expectations while preserving a commitment to healthy development and equity for all students.”

What does this mean on a day-to-day level at Basalt Middle School? Voss says morning meetings at the school often include YouTube videos that illustrate the rewards of hard work and a “growth mindset” that helps children to embrace challenges rather than avoid them. The staff teaches students to set goals and track their own learning, so children are motivated and empowered to learn and grow.

“With a growth mindset, you ask questions, you’re not worried about failure, you’re willing to dig in and try something,” Voss explains. “We’ve tried really hard to have that mindset in our school community.”

Basalt Middle School’s success has turned heads within the Roaring Fork School District as well.

“Basalt Middle School is truly a model of the key components of excellence that must be present in any school,” said Superintendent Diana Sirko. “This recognition is a wonderful reflection of the hard work, persistence and commitment of BMS students, staff, the leadership team and the community.”

As part of the Trailblazer designation, Voss and other Basalt Middle School staff members will attend a June conference in Washington, D.C., where they will present aspects of their program and learn about what other schools to watch” are doing.

Two other Colorado schools were redesignated as Trailblazers this year: Fort Morgan Middle School in the Fort Morgan School District and Wellington Middle School in the Poudre School District. Westview Middle School in the St. Vrain Valley School District was designated for the first time this year.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times are collaborating on coverage of local and regional schools. The Times published this story on Friday, March 20, 2015.