WASILLA — Cottonwood Creek Elementary showcases its school spirit outside with white letters on a hillside that spell "COTTONWOOD," like the famous Hollywood sign.
Inside, principal Lisa Vrvilo has spent a decade forging what she describes as a structured program that's led to academic success and low staff turnover at this school of 500 students that's the largest elementary school in Mat-Su.
Vrvilo earlier this month was named National Distinguished Principal for 2017 by the Alaska Association of Elementary Principals.
She will travel to Washington, D.C., this fall, along with 49 other principals from around the country, for a ceremony marking the 33rd year of the program established to highlight leadership in elementary and middle school principals.
Despite the accolade, Vrvilo joins other Alaska educators grappling with local and state funding challenges.
Cottonwood is losing one full-time teaching position, an educational coach and a front desk position this coming year, she says. The school's two custodians gave notice after learning the district was cutting a third custodial position.
The district has told elementary schools to expect 30 to 35 students per class.
Vrvilo said her "dedicated, professional" staff will find ways to make the school year work, though the situation isn't ideal.
"We just have such a great culture here," she said, describing teachers greeting students every morning and hallways full of parents helping younger students read.
Vrvilo said she's proud of the academic achievement that makes Cottonwood such a "sought-after school" that takes nearly 200 boundary exemptions every year — students who request to come to Cottonwood rather than attend their own neighborhood schools.
Cottonwood relies on data-driven instruction, Vrvilo said. The school uses the STEAM educational approach — science, technology, engineering, arts and math — and incorporates technology like iPads into the curriculum.
Oregon-raised but an educator in Alaska for 26 years, Vrvilo came to Cottonwood 10 years ago after former Mat-Su Superintendent Deena Bishop left the job to move to district headquarters. Before that, Vrvilo served as assistant principal at Teeland Middle School and worked at schools in the Mat-Su, Kenai Peninsula and Copper River school districts.
She was nominated for the national award by another Mat-Su principal.
There are 160 principals in the Alaska Association of Elementary School Principals, according to executive director John Pile. That doesn't include those at K-12 schools.
Vrvilo was praised for her leadership, community relations and school culture, student achievement and long tenure at the school, Pile said.
"It's a big deal," he said.