Ascension Parish school officials were surprised Saturday when they won two national awards — and $15,000 in prize money — at the 13th National TAP Conference in Washington, D.C.

The school district was one of two in the country to receive the TAP Award of Distinction, which honors an organization for its dedication to the Teacher Advancement Program, a national initiative to attract, develop and motivate talented people to the teaching profession.

In addition, Donaldsonville High School was one of six schools in the country — and the only one in the state — to receive the TAP Ambassador Award, which honors a school that goes beyond its campus to represent the TAP principles and assist others in the state, region and nation.

The school district received $10,000 for its award, while Donaldsonville High was given $5,000.

“I commend Superintendent (Patrice) Pujol for her commitment to TAP as a cornerstone for turning schools around,” Gary Stark, president and chief executive officer of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, which manages and supports the TAP system, said in a news release.

Ascension first began using the TAP program during the 2007-08 school year at Donaldsonville High and Lowery Intermediate, which is now known as Lowery Middle. The district has since expanded the program to include all eight of the district’s “turnaround zone” schools — which were chosen for lower-performing state standardized test scores.

Each of the schools has a leadership team that includes the principal, administrators, and master and mentor teachers — high-performing teachers who are given financial incentives to help coach classroom teachers. The leadership teams provide teachers with daily professional development through classroom observations and conferences.

District officials haven’t decided how to use the $10,000, but Pujol said she wants to make sure all eight TAP schools receive some benefit.

Pujol said 45 district officials made the trip to the conference, and having district office administrators, school administrators, and master and mentor teachers on hand for the award announcement “was just phenomenal” and helped them to feel “valued and empowered that this is the work we need to be doing.”

Pujol said she has seen great strides at the district’s TAP schools, and she has identified several other schools that could be future candidates should their school-performance scores stagnate. However, because of pay incentives and other TAP requirements, funding plays a major role in expanding the program.

“In a perfect world, I’d put TAP in every school because I think it could push a high-performing school to even higher levels,” she said. “But it doesn’t come without a cost.”

Donaldsonville High Principal Esrom Pitre cited the TAP program as a major reason his school has grown from being rated by the state as an “F” school to one with a “B” rating this past school year.

Pitre said he plans to use the $5,000 reward on either technology or classroom supplements “to support and move student achievement.”

“It’s such a great honor for me and my faculty and administrative team to win this award among so many other TAP high schools,” Pitre said.