School community celebrates first designation as ‘Blue Ribbon School’ by U.S. Dept. of Education
WILMINGTON — Rising test scores, high school acceptances and community service are among the things a group of eighth-grade students at St. John the Beloved said set their school apart and why it has been recognized as a 2016 Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education.
St. John’s is one of five schools in Delaware to receive the designation. Christ the Teacher Catholic School was also honored. No more than 50 nonpublic schools nationwide may be named Blue Ribbon schools in a given year.
St. John the Beloved, which will mark its 60th year in 2017, will celebrate its first Blue Ribbon designation on Nov. 10. Bishop Malooly will preside at a Mass, and the Blue Ribbon flag will be raised. More activities could be planned by then, school administrators said.
Richard Hart, in his ninth year as principal at St. John the Beloved, said it means a lot to gain recognition for what he and his staff have known all along.
“It’s just a validation of the good things that happen in our school,” he said. “We don’t talk about it enough. Our parents say, ‘We know St. John’s is a good school.’ But when an outside group is telling you you’re a Blue Ribbon School, that really validates what you do.”
Mary Lou Soltys, the school’s assistant principal, said the committee that evaluated St. John the Beloved during its last re-accreditation process suggested they apply for Blue Ribbon status.
“That energized us to really get cracking on this,” she said.
She spearheaded the effort, interviewing students, teachers and parents; collecting mountains of data; and answering 12 essay questions addressing every facet of school life. Terra Nova scores are of particular importance to the evaluators, she said, and the school must have a foreign language as part of the curriculum.
Student government leaders at St. John the Beloved, all in eighth grade, were not hesitant to talk about what their school brings to the table. Michael Cotrotsios said 100 percent of the eighth-graders are accepted to the high school of their choice. For those students who need or want additional help in that area, St. John’s offers a high school prep course.
April Elliott noted that the curriculum is updated every five years, and the teachers are not married to one style of teaching. If a different style is needed to reach the students, the teachers adapt.
“They’re very dedicated, and they want you to do your best. They want you to get into the high school of your choice. And the eighth-grade teachers, they’ve all been here the longest,” April said.
Grace Dohl and Natalia Delgado talked about the activities available, including band, sports and community service. There is an activity period each week, and one of the clubs is dedicated to service. Natalia is in the Kids’ Care Club, which has collected boxes of clothing to send to Nicaragua. The service extends beyond the school.
“We’re very involved, not only with school, but with the parish and the parents as well. One example is the SJB carnival we have every year in the first week of June. The school community and the parishioners all come together,” Grace said.
The band is one of the most popular activities. Under the direction of Ray DiVirgilio, they provide music at school Masses and other events, perform at area jazz festivals and, once a year, participate in a competition at Villanova University against dozens of other schools. Soltys said the band has approximately 60 members, and students can play the instrument they want. If that means an extra saxophone or two, so be it.
Keely is a member of the band. “It’s a lot of fun, and the band is like our own little family.”
Technology out front
One of the biggest initiatives at St. John the Beloved is the use of Chromebooks by the older grades. The eighth-graders, who became the first class to use them two years ago, said the computers have made their lives easier and better.
“All of our textbooks are on it, so if you’re absent you can easily do the work that is assigned,” Keely Hoban said.
That is not the only advantage, according to Natalia. Using Google Docs, students can type notes instead of trying to keep up by hand. And if they forget something at home, they can call it up on their notebook computers.
Keely said that not having to lug around a bunch of heavy textbooks is a real plus. In addition, students can collaborate on projects whether or not they are in the same place. The older students help show their younger counterparts how to use them, and on occasion they show something new to the teachers as well.
“They learn from it, and they don’t put your idea down. They accept everyone’s questions and ideas for the Chromebooks,” April said.
The teachers might learn from their students, and they have regular professional development as well. Soltys said they are always growing.
“We all keep learning. Everybody has to keep learning. And that’s what makes our school a good dynamic program,” said Soltys, who was on the staff at St. John the Beloved for a year in the 1990s and has been back since 2002.
Hart said St. John’s is ahead of some other schools in using the Chromebooks, but there is plenty they can do to advance, so he and other staff have visited high schools in the diocese to see what they are doing. In turn, St. John’s has shared its knowledge with other Catholic elementary schools. He considers reaching out one of the responsibilities of a Blue Ribbon school.
There are 570 students enrolled, and although Hart said they could squeeze a few more, St. John’s is essentially full. About 40 percent of the students have parents who attended. A number of teachers are alumni.
Even though St. John the Beloved has achieved Blue Ribbon status, some changes are guaranteed to occur next year. Hart said the school is not afraid to implement new programs and, just as important, to admit when they don’t work. Soltys said the evaluation is ongoing.
“Every year there’s an adjustment to the program to make it better.”