Hundreds of McKinley Middle Magnet School students, teachers and parents filled City-Brooks BREC Park on Saturday afternoon for a community party celebrating McKinley’s recent designation by federal education authorities as a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence.

The award, one of only five in Louisiana and 356 nationally, is the highest honor attainable for a school to receive from the U.S. Education Department, said Principal Herman Brister Jr.

McKinley Middle, which has been a magnet school since 1983 and enrolls 750 students from the sixth through eighth grades, was notified of the award in September and Brister went to Washington, D.C., last week to bring it home.

“This, for us, is like winning a national championship,” Brister said. “It tells the story that we are one of the best schools in the country.”

The Louisiana Department of Education examined the school’s progress and quality for the past five years, Brister said, and the school also had to complete a lengthy application for federal education officials.

“This validates for the staff that they have worked extremely hard putting students first and educating them to the highest possible limit,” Brister said. “There were staff here until 10:30 last night getting ready for this — and that is the norm for them. This is a memory for the students that will last a lifetime.”

As music blared from loudspeakers, younger children lined up to enter five inflatable space walks and competed in several soccer games, while many of the older boys played cross-court basketball games. Up on the hill and under some shade trees, dozens of parents chatted and visited informational booths while several food trucks were doing business while parked along the street.

“I think it’s a big deal that we are honored with a national award,” said seventh-grader Tate Francois, 12. “It means our school is above all the rest of the schools in the nation.”

Seventh-grader Jeanne Smith, 12, who is involved in dance, talented drama, show choir, and Beta Club, and who enjoys math and science, said she wants to study medicine when she grows up. “We love our school,” she said.

“It’s an honor for us to be one of the best schools in the nation and it shows that people actually appreciate how our school is run,” added her friend, Skylar Randall, 12, who wants to be a veterinarian or a teacher while excelling at advanced math. “They give us lots of homework, but our test scores have improved.”

Dianne Smith, Jeanne Smith’s mother, is president of the Parent Teacher Organization. “We’re excited,“ Dianne Smith said. “This means everybody benefits, the children, the teachers, the school, the parish school system and the community.”

Mayor-President Kip Holden kicked off the afternoon activities by declaring Saturday as McKinley Middle Magnet School Day before presenting the principal with the proclamation that made it official.

“You are the best. You can say, ‘I don’t have to prove myself to you,’” Holden told the crowd. “Like we say in the Baptist church, ‘Let the work I’ve done speak for me.’”

State 1st Circuit Court of Appeal Judge John Michael Guidry, who grew up in the neighborhood and attended McKinley, told the crowd, “We are so proud of you all and I want to encourage you to continue to do the good work. You are our heroes. God bless you.”

“McKinley Middle School is the best middle school on the planet,” declared parent and Metro Councilwoman Tara Wicker. “You guys have earned this award, you have done the best.”

Wicker also said that when there are parent meetings, “it is standing room only — it takes parents and all of us working together to make sure our children are the best they can be.”

“This award is only a starting block because we want you all to continue to excel,” said state Rep. Ted James II, D-Baton Rouge, another graduate of the school. “I tell everyone everywhere I go that I would not have been able to accomplish what I have in my life without this school and the public schools.”

East Baton Rouge School Board member and parent Craig Freeman said his son, Ransome, who attends sixth grade at McKinley Magnet, loves the school so much, “he jumps up every morning to go to school. They’ll be out for Thanksgiving vacation and he’ll miss coming here.”