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Blue Ribbon Schools

AN IN-DEPTH VIEW OF BLUE RIBBON SCHOOLS

A Blue Ribbon award is the most prestigious national honor available in the world of pre-college education. It is a symbol of quality that brings distinction to the school and to the community. The program recognizes schools that have sustained success in the intellectual, moral, social and physical growth of students as well as schools that have shown significant improvement in these areas or have overcome serious obstacles. There are three main purposes to the Blue Ribbon program:

  • To recognize public and private schools in the United States
  • To establish effective school criteria for self-assessment
  • To disseminate and instill these criteria among schools

The Blue Ribbon signifies that the school has met the stringent criteria established by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) as well as by a national review panel of 100 educators. Principals from winning schools insist that national, as well as local, recognition of the school conveys to the community and the school personnel the high quality of education provided to the students: this, in turn, fuels further commitment to success.

ELIGIBILITY

Any K-12 school, public or private, which has been in operation for at least five years is eligible to compete for a Blue Ribbon award. This includes all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, and schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Defense. Elementary and secondary schools are judged in alternate years.

HISTORY

The Blue Ribbon program was established in 1982 by the U.S. Department of Education and has grown in popularity with each passing year and in the Texas area, the number has increased every year. The application process, an arduous task taking up to a year to complete, serves as an outstanding method of self-evaluation for the school: pointing out both strengths and weaknesses. In order to qualify to receive national recognition, a school committee has to describe the means in which it has met its own goals, as well as how it has fulfilled both state and national goals. Their conclusion was that superior schools are not the result of a "quick fix", but are schools that have a long-term strategy to achieve high goals. The study led the committee to agree on eight necessary measures for a school to attain and sustain academic success:

  1. Student focus and support
  2. School organization and culture
  3. Challenging standards and curriculum
  4. Active teaching and learning
  5. Professional community
  6. Leadership and educational vitality
  7. School, family and community partnerships
  8. Indicators of success

An aspect of the Blue Ribbon program that the committee emphasized was the importance of self-assessment. Belinda Flores of TEA in Austin is quick to point out that if schools participate only for the opportunity to win an award, they are in it for the wrong reason. "Just going through the application process alone", claims Flores “will benefit the school. You'd be surprised at what schools learn about their strengths and weaknesses just by filling out the form." Completing the form is challenging. The following is an example of just one of the many questions included on the form:

How does your curriculum serve the broad goals for student learning and development that the public generally expects education to achieve: personal and intellectual growth, citizenship, and preparation for work and higher education? What relative emphasis do you place on these goals in your curriculum? Give specific examples of how your curriculum addresses, and how much emphasis you place on each of these objectives: basic skills; learning in the academic disciplines; character development and ethical judgment; preparation for life in a complex and diverse society; appreciation for democratic values; participation in the practices of democracy and community service; development of interpersonal, technological, and other skills valued in the workplace; and other broad goals and objectives consistent with your school’s vision/mission?

The application requires a substantial commitment of time and energy by the teachers, administrators and other volunteers, and can take up to 600 hours of self-evaluation and preparation. However, by diligently completing the application, a staff will learn what the school effectively implements and what they need to reevaluate. This self-evaluation part of the Blue Ribbon process is why Flores insists that the time spent, even without applying for the award, will benefit the students. The following overview briefly details the five sections that make up the Blue Ribbon form:

  1. Seven simple questions that ascertain whether or not a school meets eligibility criterion
  2. Fifteen questions relating to background and demographics of the school and district
  3. A two-page summary of the school, focusing on its strengths and accomplishments
  4. A one-page mission statement for the school
  5. An eight-part section detailing how the school has been successful in “achieving both excellence and equity.”

This last section is the key to realizing or maintaining positive changes in a school. It is also the section, which requires the most time and thought to complete. The judging committee asks for responses that "show sensitivity to the full range of special needs" that exist in the community and school population. The following issues are addressed through detailed and comprehensive questions:

  1. Educational focus and support for students
  2. School organization and culture
  3. Academic standards and curriculum
  4. Active teaching and learning
  5. Professional community
  6. Leadership
  7. Partnerships between the school, families, and the community
  8. Benchmarks for success

In addition to the standard application, private schools must complete an addendum that focuses on budget and tuition. Also included in the Blue Ribbon application is an optional special honors section. This year, schools were able to apply for special honors in Special Education or in Technology. It is not necessary to apply in either area in order to be a Blue Ribbon winner, but a school must first earn a Blue Ribbon award before a special honor will be considered. Whether or not a school applies for this special recognition has no bearing on the selection for a Blue Ribbon award. The special honor section allows schools to highlight their strongest areas by following additional criteria.

FINAL PHASE

Once the forms are completed, all of the information is sent to the Texas Administration Agency (TEA) in Austin for review. While there is no limit to the number of schools that may apply for recognition, each state is allocated a specific number of schools that can be recognized as Blue Ribbon winners. These numbers are based on the population and the number of schools in the state. The selection of winners varies slightly for public and private schools. For the public schools, each state has its own program for selecting which of its schools will be nominated for the national competition. The chief state school officers report their nominations to the U. S. Department of Education. The application process for private schools and schools of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Defense is conducted through their own nominating agencies with results then being sent on to the National competition.

For the national competition, a panel of 100 educators, including principals of past winning schools, evaluates the applications. The members of the panel are drawn from geographically diverse areas and include educators of various cultures and, ethnicities as well as educators with physical handicaps. The panel reviews the applications and selects promising schools for a two-day site visit. During the site visit, members of the review panel verify responses given in the application and gather additional information. Time is spent on classroom observations and meetings with school and district administrators, teachers, support staff, students, parents and community members. A written report is completed following the site visit.

The applications along with site visit reports are then subjected to a second national review. Each form is re-read by four panelists who rate the applications. The scores of the four judges are averaged, and the applications for the top schools for each state are forwarded to the U.S. Secretary of Education. At this point, the schools are no longer competing against one another and all can be named as winners. After the Office of Civil Rights ensures that eligibility requirements have been met a review committee judges all forms. The reviewers read applications from states other than their own. Their findings are reported to the Secretary of Education who selects and announces the winning schools. Three representatives from each school are invited to attend a recognition ceremony in Washington D.C.

Responsibilities of Winning Schools

It is the program’s philosophy that recognized schools maintain the responsibility of modeling excellence for others. The Department of Education has set sharing of successes as a goal of the Blue Ribbon program. State and district officials are also expected to help with school-to-school interactions by helping to link schools together and by seeing that winning schools follow through with their responsibilities to other schools. While Blue Ribbon recognition is a lifetime source of pride, the active status remains in effect for five years following the award, after which time a school must reapply for recognition. After the required wait period, a recognized school must meet additional standards related to continued improvement and sharing of practices before reapplying for Blue Ribbon status.

For more information on how your school can apply for a Blue Ribbon award, to learn more about the application or to see a complete list of winners, please visit: http://www.ed.gov/programs/nclbbrs/awards.html

Closing Thoughts

I would like to applaud all of the applicant schools and the winners as my purpose for writing this article are to raise community awareness about the Blue Ribbon selection procedures. Those who are a part of the school community should have a sense of pride and should realize the efforts and hard work educators, parents and students have dedicated to obtaining such an honor.