By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published September 16, 2010
On every door at St. John the Evangelist School hangs a blue ribbon: just one way the school is celebrating its achievement of earning the prestigious Blue Ribbon School of Excellence title for 2010.
This is nothing new for the Hapeville Catholic school, which first earned the title more than a decade ago in 1994, but it comes as a great joy to the parents, students, faculty and staff, some of whom have been there since the first award was received.
“It is very affirming to have an outside party recognize the work we have been doing,” said principal Karen Vogtner, who described the school as a collaborative effort.
“We hung a blue ribbon on each door because each member of the staff helped us achieve this honor,” she said. “We are a school of excellence but not by isolation.”
The news from the U.S. Department of Education came Sept. 9 and it did not take long before the announcement spread to the teachers, staff and the parent community.
Ginger Schilling, a library aide at St. John the Evangelist, who has put four of her own children through the school, said she could understand why they were recognized this year.
“The school is a strong anchor in our families,” said Schilling, who began volunteering at the school in 1988 before eventually joining the staff.
“The school has stayed strong,” she added, saying this is due to the school keeping God at the center of its activities.
This centering on God and spirituality is something the students themselves recognize and are excited to talk about.
“We dedicate our thoughts, words and actions towards the greater glory of God,” said Jordan Thomas, an eighth-grader and president of the student council.
The Blue Ribbon Schools program, established in 1982, honors public and private schools based on various stringent criteria to measure continuing academic excellence or dramatic improvements in student accomplishments at high levels.
In the case of private schools, at a minimum, they must consistently rank in the top 10 percent of the nation on nationally standardized tests.
The Council for American Private Education initially reviews the applications submitted by private schools. CAPE then provides the Department of Education with schools whose applications it finds worthy of consideration, which are then invited by the Secretary of Education to submit an application for possible recognition as a Blue Ribbon School.
“Our nation has a responsibility to help all children realize their full potential,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a press release announcing the winners. “Schools honored with the Blue Ribbon Schools award are committed to achievement and to ensuring that students learn and succeed. Their work reflects the conviction that every child has promise and must receive a quality education.”
A total of 304 schools were recognized nationally, the majority public schools. Only 50 are private schools and 42 of the 50 are Catholic schools, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.
Eleven Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Atlanta have received Blue Ribbon designation since the program began, including four in 2009.
St. John the Evangelist, which teaches 303 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, was also listed as a high-performing school among 2010 honorees.
The school is “a beacon of hope for families seeking the traditional fruits of Catholic education,” according to the archdiocesan superintendent of Catholic schools.
“I am so extremely happy for the St. John the Evangelist Catholic School community,” said Diane Starkovich. “This prestigious award affirms the efforts of the entire school community.”
She noted that the school brings strong faith formation and outstanding academic achievement to a diverse school population from various ethnic groups and across many economic strata.
“A language other than English is spoken in the homes of approximately one-third of the St. John the Evangelist Catholic School families and approximately one-third of the school families qualify for free and/or reduced lunch programs,” Starkovich said.
“When teachers, staff, parishioners, parents and students support the common mission of our Catholic schools—academic excellence in a faith-based environment—we know that all students can be successful.”
The school has several events planned to celebrate the honor. The week of Sept. 13 the school had a “true blue” day where the entire school wore blue in honor of the designation.
The week of Nov. 8 to 12 before school leaders travel to Washington, D.C. to receive the award, the school will celebrate “Blue Ribbon Week” where there will be a different treat each day of the week, from Blue Bell ice cream to blue snow cones to a scavenger hunt for a hidden blue ribbon.
In January 2011, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory will be present for a prayer service to recognize the community members who have helped make this dream a reality.
“Our parents give 15,000 service hours each year,” said Vogtner, pointing out how integral the parents are to the strong sense of family felt by everyone involved. “The children will tell you it is family here.”
And most do.
“You can feel how we are one big family and we always help each other,” said Maritza Silva, an eighth-grader.
“We are all like a family. We all know each other very well,” said Jennifer Nguyen, a seventh-grader.
Since its accreditation in 1972, the strong spirituality that was present since the beginning of the school, which was founded by the Sisters of Mercy, continues to shine forth for all to see.
“Their legacy lives on,” said Mary Jean Griffin, the assistant principal who has been with the school since its inception. “There’s been a lot of growth and a lot of changes but a steady spirituality. … It is Christ at the center that keeps us going, keeps us strong.”
“This place is special,” said Kate Aiello, Spanish teacher.
Aiello, who came to St. John the Evangelist as part of Notre Dame University’s ACE program for new teachers, had such a positive experience with the school that she decided to stay.
“It is astounding the genuine faith experiences you see here,” she said.
“The reason we are successful is because everybody contributes their gifts,” said Vogtner. “All children can learn at a high level if you have a caring and supportive environment.”