By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published September 29, 2011
Blue ribbons and banners adorned Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic School on Friday, Sept. 16, following an announcement that the school was one of 49 private schools to receive the title of a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence for 2011.
The official news went public at the end of the school day on Thursday, Sept. 15, when the school in the Brookhaven neighborhood of Atlanta announced it to students and shared it via email with parents.
Earning the national title is more than sending in an application. The process began last December, when the Council for American Private Education, which works with the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of prospective Blue Ribbon private schools, nominated OLACS.
It begins when the school submits an application to CAPE, including extensive information on academic performance and test scores, which must be in the top 15 percent among schools the nation if the institution is applying as a high-performance school. The council then provides school officials with feedback from their review process, advising them whether or not they will be among the 50 schools nominated for Blue Ribbon recognition. The school will then submit another application to the U.S. Department of Education for final consideration. Then comes the hardest part for many: waiting to hear the results.
Blue Ribbon schools are recognized either for high performing academic excellence or for strong improvement, when at least 40 percent of students from disadvantaged backgrounds improve student performance to high levels, as measured by the school’s performance on state assessments or nationally normed tests. OLACS was recognized for its academic excellence.
“OLACS met the eligibility requirements for the Blue Ribbon School of Excellence in part because its students consistently score among the highest performing schools in the nation in reading and mathematics as measured by a nationally normed standardized test,” parents were told by email.
“The (U.S.) Department of Education also recognized the school’s dedication to its mission of creating a nurturing environment, grounded in the Catholic faith, which provides for the spiritual and academic development of each child,” the message said.
Beyond the academic achievements and spiritual attention to each child, the close network of parents, teachers, administrators and students creates a sense of community that OLACS considers one of its most important characteristics.
“The one thing I noted was the strong faith community,” said Principal Anita Nagel about her first impressions of the school when she joined the staff in 2006. “It’s just there when you open the doors. You can feel it.”
Parents echoed that sentiment. Sara Hogan, a member of Our Lady of the Assumption Parish, sent her daughter, Ann, to the school from first through eighth grade and her son, Jack, is currently in sixth grade.
“It is a neighborhood school. We know many families who sent children here and speak very highly of it,” said Hogan, who has served in various volunteer positions within the school community, from director of hospitality to co-chair of the gala, the largest fundraiser for the school, that is held every two years.
“I’m so fortunate that I can be involved,” Hogan said.
“Volunteers are very important to us,” said Bennie Smith, assistant principal, noting that community service has been an integral part of the school’s identity, going back to its roots with the Sisters of Mercy in the early 1950s.
It was founded in 1951 in conjunction with the parish, when the Diocese of Savannah-Atlanta purchased more than seven acres of land to establish a school, chapel and convent. The school opened in 1952 with an enrollment of 176 students in kindergarten through the fifth grade. The school is currently filled to capacity with 521 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.
To celebrate the achievement of earning the coveted Blue Ribbon and to honor its humble roots of service, students and faculty will participate in a school-wide day of service on Friday, Oct. 28, to recognize the influence of the Sisters of Mercy, who staffed the school from 1951 until 1988. Middle school students will participate in service projects outside of the school grounds, while the younger children focus on activities on campus.
“It’s kind acts that make the school,” said Smith. “That’s the lesson that’s been here from the beginning.”
According to the U.S. Department of Education, the National Blue Ribbon School recognition honors public and private elementary, middle and high schools where students achieve at high levels or where the achievement gap is narrowing. Before selecting National Blue Ribbon Schools, the department asks for public school nominations from the top education official in every state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Department of Defense Education Activity and the Bureau of Indian Education.
The Council for American Private Education is responsible for nominating private schools. A total of 413 schools nationwide are nominated. For the 2011 school year, 304 schools are being honored, 255 public and 49 private. Since 1982, more than 6,500 schools have received the Blue Ribbon award.
Representatives from OLACS will attend a formal ceremony in Washington, D.C., in November, where they will receive a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence flag and commemorative plaque.
“I am excited and thrilled with the announcement,” said Marist Father Jim Duffy, pastor of OLA. “But I have always known in my heart that our faculty and administration are par excellence and the school has always been a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence.”
“It’s an award that comes back to the whole community,” said Nagel.
Of the 49 private schools that were named as 2011 Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence, 46 have a Catholic affiliation.
Our Lady of the Assumption is the 12th Catholic school in the archdiocese to be honored with the designation.
“The Archdiocese of Atlanta is blessed with Catholic schools that deliver the two traditional fruits of Catholic education: strong faith formation and academic excellence,” said Dr. Diane Starkovich, superintendent of Catholic schools. “With Our Lady of the Assumption’s recognition as a U.S. Department of Education Blue Ribbon School of Excellence, we are proud to claim that 73 percent of our grade schools have been recognized with this prestigious award.”
“I extend my heartfelt congratulations to the Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic School community,” Starkovich continued. “It truly takes everyone working toward that common mission of excellence for a school to be recognized nationally.”