METAIRIE —Jefferson Parish school system principals, who saw the largest number of schools earning the Top Gains designation in the state, gathered in the cafeteria of Phoebe Hearst school Thursday to receive their congratulations and monetary award from state Superintendent of Education John White.

Each school receives $8,453 to be used for educational purposes as the faculty and administration see fit.

Statewide, 440 schools earned the designation for the 2011-2012 school year.

To qualify for Top Gains, schools must improve their school performance score by or beyond a predetermined growth targeting, an increase ranging from 2 to 10 points in the state’s grading system, in which the benchmark for being designated as a failing school is 75.

White said that five of the 27 schools were below 75 and met their growth targets to earn the award.

“The best plan for turning around schools and for school choice is to make every school a good choice,” White said.

James Meza, superintendent of the Jefferson Parish school system, praised the School Board and the teachers not present at the ceremony for “carrying the ball while we celebrate.”

Meza also thanked White for his support and fortitude over the past year, which brought sweeping education changes to both the district and the state.

To a standing ovation, Meza acknowledged Richard Carpenter, chief academic officer and deputy superintendent, who after 40 years with the district announced this week that he will be stepping down at the end of January.

Meza praised Carpenter for never having negative things to say and for his guidance, support and courage.

In a memo sent Thursday to his staff regarding Carpenter’s upcoming departure, Meza said, “I can’t express how much he has contributed to our school system through his work, and how integral he has been throughout the district’s recent reorganization to provide better support to our schools and staff. ... Although we will miss Richard tremendously, he has more than earned the right to spend more time with his loved ones and enjoy his retirement.”

In the memo Meza also said that he is working on a transition plan.

White said he loves visiting Jefferson Parish because that leadership is celebrated in the school system.

He told principals in the audience that if they don’t have the tools they need to be empowered to lead, to let him know.

Keith Mayeaux, principal of Hearst, the hosting school, said that one of their keys to success is teaching students to be professional students and that professional students remain focused.

It’s about changing the mind set, Mayeaux said, and knowing that all students can learn.

Connie Barre, a fifth-grade teacher at Hearst, said that the school is like a family, and everyone works together “extremely well.”

Barre attributed the school’s success to the emphasis on students taking ownership of their learning and impressing upon them that, “This is for me.”

Kevin Dettart, a fourth-grade teacher at Hearst, said that the students work on preparing for the LEAP test throughout the entire year, by taking practice tests and learning what to look for in questions.

Test preparation is integrated in the classroom lessons as well as homework through multiple, interactive ways, Dettart said, along with teaching the regular curriculum.

George Hebert, Jr., principal of Fisher Middle and High School, said that his school plans to use the money to help implement the new Common Core State Standards.

Esther Pollard, principal of Lionel Collins Montessori, said that her school will use the money to help build a high-tech computer lab.

The Top Gains schools in Jefferson Parish include the following: Airline Park Academy for Advanced Studies, Alice M. Birney Elementary School, Geraldine Boudreaux Elementary School, Bridgedale Elementary School, Chateau Estates Elementary School, Clancy-Maggiore School for the Arts, Lionel R. Collins Montessori, Ella Dolhonde Elementary School, J.C. Ellis Elementary School, Fisher Middle/High School, Gretna No. 2 Academy for Advanced Studies, Harahan Elementary School, Haynes Academy School for Advanced Studies, Phoebe Hearst School, Congetta Trippe Janet Elementary School, Thomas Jefferson High School for Advanced Studies, Marrero Academy for Advanced Studies, McDonogh #26 Elementary School, Metairie Academy for Advanced Studies, Patrick F. Taylor Science & Technology Academy, Riverdale High School, Marie B. Riviere Elementary School, L. W. Ruppel Academy for Advanced Studies, Walter G. Schneckenburger Elementary School, Washington Montessori, Westbank Community School and Woodmere Elementary School.