Baton Rouge and New Orleans schools were honored Tuesday when they were designated Blue Ribbon schools of excellence, the nation’s top school honor.
Baton Rouge Magnet High, LSU Lab School, St. Aloysius Catholic School and St. James Episcopal Day School are among the nine Louisiana schools — six public and three private — named.
This is Baton Rouge Magnet’s third time earning a Blue Ribbon and St. James’ second. LSU Lab and St. Aloysius are first-time winners.
All four schools have long-standing reputations for academic excellence.
Nan McCann had been principal of Baton Rouge Magnet High for just a year in 2003 when the school won its second Blue Ribbon. Twelve years later, winning again is extra sweet. Although the high school has an established reputation as a good school, the Blue Ribbon is a crucial verification of that fact, she said.
“It’s the ultimate reward for working hard,” McCann said.
In New Orleans, Benjamin Franklin High School has earned its fourth Blue Ribbon.
Four other Blue Ribbon winners in Louisiana were announced Tuesday:
Martin Petitjean Elementary School in Rayne.
Pointe-Aux-Chenes Elementary School in Montegut.
St. Paul’s School in Covington.
South Crowley Elementary School in Crowley.
The Blue Ribbon award is given by the U.S. Department of Education, which began bestowing the honor in 1982. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at 10 a.m. announced the 335 schools named this year — 285 public, 50 private schools nationwide.
Schools can earn Blue Ribbon awards in two ways: they are among the top performing schools in their respective states, or they have shown substantial progress in closing the achievement gap between all students and historically low-performing subsets of students such as racial minorities and those living in poverty.
The four Baton Rouge winners all are in the first category, known as an “exemplary high performing school.”
St. Aloysius called a school assembly Tuesday afternoon to announce the good news to the more than 1,200 students at the school.
“We’ll be saying blue, blue, blue after this,” Principal Erin Candilora teased.
She finally told them they’d won a Blue Ribbon award, sparking loud pandemonium in the gym that lasted for several seconds.
Candilora, who became principal in July, replacing John Bennett who retired, explained what it took for private schools like St. Aloysius to even be considered for a Blue Ribbon honor: Students in third through eighth grades had to score in the top 15 percent in the country on a standardized test in both math and reading.
“You earned this award!” Candilora said.
The biggest applause, though, came at the end when the students learned their reward: blue cupcakes.
The U.S. Department of Education is honoring the 335 schools at a recognition ceremony Nov. 9-10 in Washington, D.C. In its 33-year history, the National Blue Ribbon Schools Program has bestowed this award on some 8,000 schools.
The six public schools were nominated earlier this year by the Louisiana Department of Education.
“We want to congratulate these schools and districts for earning this distinguished honor, proving again our students are as smart and capable as any in America,” state Superintendent John White said after the announcement.
The private schools were nominated by the Germantown, Maryland-based Council for American Private Education .
St. James Episcopal won its first Blue Ribbon in 2009, meaning it had to wait at least five years to seek another. Head of School Lauren Ray, who recently took over for Linda Chauviere after she retired, said CAPE made it clear that it was focusing on private schools that had never won before, so the chances of a repeat for St. James weren’t good.
“They really discouraged us from applying, but we did it anyway,” Ray said.
The school has made changes in recent years that it wanted to highlight, including expanding its use of instructional technology and $500,000 worth of renovations. Ray said the school’s application detailed how the school maintains small classes and works to customize teaching to the needs of individual students.
“It’s been a really great run of excellence here,” Ray said.
LSU Lab School, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary, finally won its first Blue Ribbon on Tuesday. The school, which receives public funding but also charges tuition, was created to serve as a laboratory for prospective teachers in LSU’s College of Education.
Wade Smith, the superintendent of the Lab School, said earning the Blue Ribbon is a welcome external validation, but the school’s primary goal is to be valued by students and parents, and that hasn’t changed.
“It’s nice to be recognized, but the most important thing is the pulse of the community,” Smith said. “We really try to keep track of that.”
The state Department of Education generated controversy last year when it drew up new rules that, among other things, barred magnet schools like Baton Rouge Magnet High from contending for Blue Ribbon honors. Two state lawmakers also protested when the state delayed for three weeks nominating Parkview Elementary in Baton Rouge, giving the school just eight days to complete its application. Parkview ended up winning anyway.
At White’s request, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education last October dropped the new rules and now relies only on minimum federal criteria.