Stevenson Elementary School

First grader Samuel Shorthouse used chalk pastels to create a flower inspired by artist Georgia O'Keeffe during art class at Stevenson Elementary School in Burbank on Thursday, May 1, 2014. The school was named a distinguished school. (Raul Roa / Staff Photographer / May 1, 2014)

Improving students' overall academic success was a key component in two local elementary schools receiving 2014 California Distinguished Schools' awards this week.

Joaquin Miller and R.L. Stevenson elementary schools were also each presented an additional distinction honoring their "exemplary" arts programs, a nod that only 13 schools in the entire state won out of the 424 that earned the awards.

"I'm really proud of our students. The [award] respects all of the hard work that they've done," said Miller Principal Judy Hession, who added that the teachers' dedication and parents' involvement were also part of the school's success.

"You can't do it by yourself. We all need each other to make it successful," she said.

The state award recognizes schools that increase students' achievement.

Leadership at both schools cited the arts programs available to students as part of the reason they were honored for that as well.

At Miller Elementary, Hession said she believes the school's strength is in its theater arts program, which has won support with grants provided by 24th Street Theatre, a Los Angeles-based organization that helps train educators in producing theatrical productions.

Parents have also pitched in to improve the lighting and sound systems in the space where students perform.

At Stevenson Elementary, Principal Debbie Ginnetti said the school has received many visits from artists to teach dance or visual arts on the campus for up to 12 weeks at a time.

The school also welcomes musicians to perform in what's known as "Concerts on the Playground."

On a regular basis, students also study the works of other artists, Ginnetti said.

Aside from its art focus, Ginnetti said educators there aim to challenge students whether they meet, or stand below or above in their comprehension of academic material.

"Everyone is challenged to do their very best," she said.

Both principals also credited Peggy Flynn, a Burbank Unified arts coordinator who regularly sends educators notices of opportunities to apply for arts grants, and who supports the growth of arts opportunities available to students across the district.

"You could walk into any of our elementary schools and it won't look exactly the same, but they've got equally strong arts programs," Flynn said.

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Follow Kelly Corrigan on Twitter: @kellymcorrigan.

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