On Thursday, September 28th, Good Hope Middle School (the school where I teach) was one of 342 schools (35 of the middle or junior high institutions) designated a Blue Ribbon School. Since then, a few of my fellow teachers asked me “How did we earn such a distinction?”, “What does your school do differently?”, or, even “What is a National Blue Ribbon School?”
The U.S. Department of Education defines a Blue Ribbon School as:
“The National Blue Ribbon Schools Program recognizes public and private elementary, middle, and high schools based on their overall academic excellence or their progress in closing achievement gaps among student subgroups. Every year the U. S. Department of Education seeks out and celebrates great American schools, schools demonstrating that all students can achieve to high levels. More than 8,500 schools across the country have been presented with this coveted award. The National Blue Ribbon School award affirms the hard work of students, educators, families, and communities in creating safe and welcoming schools where students master challenging content. The National Blue Ribbon School flag gracing an entry or flying overhead is a widely recognized symbol of exemplary teaching and learning.”
What it doesn’t state is that, in order to maintain some equity so that the diversity of schools is representative of this distinction is that 40% of the schools must be named from average or below average socio-economic status areas. Additionally, schools can attain this “overall academic excellence” in two ways: first, students achieve at a highly consistent level; second, that they could close achievement gaps.
I can’t speak for all the other 341 schools on this list as to how and why they earned their National Blue Ribbon, but I would like to share the reasons as to why the collective group of educators, students, and community members earned this distinction at our school.
When I was hired at Good Hope Middle School, a wonderful, thoughtful, caring man was the guy who offered me the post. Soon after, I began studying for my principal practicum, and when I asked him what his best piece of advice was as a principal, it was “hire good people and get the hell out of their way.” Indeed, in a 2012 Scholastic / Gates Foundation report, 97% of teachers agreed that the best way to keep teachers and keep them motivated was supportive leadership. In my 10 years at this school, we’ve had nothing less than that, leading to our current principal.
Each of these individuals did one thing well: when it was time to open the school and show off its glory, they did that. But when it was time to draw a moat around it and protect the valuable individuals inside, they knew how to do that, too. Each was fair, firm, and respected. And each wasn’t afraid to dance outside the lines a bit to add to morale. This especially applies to our current principal, who has found ways to keep teachers happy (or better) through big, engaging activities, or even the simple addition of dress down days (we had one the day our school was named a National Blue Ribbon School).
Best of all, my principals are still educators at heart. Many lose their touch with students when they move into the corner office – but not these two. They still know what it’s like to be teachers, and they thoroughly enjoy being teachers still. When we run out of subs, it’s a pain to cover a class, but they’re the first to volunteer. (I think they like being plied away from the responsibility of paperwork.)
For any school to reach the NBRS status, they need to have the full support and buy-in of their community. I could speak at length about the ways that our Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) supports us with fundraisers, breakfasts, dinners, scholarship money, and so on, but I’ll go right to the heart: in our school, parents are wholeheartedly invested in their kids. Sure, there’s the helicopter parent and the parent whose kids do no wrong, but they’re a true, minute minority. In our school, the parent-teacher partnership is one to be envied. That’s because both sides have worked relentlessly to foster that relationship.
Speaking of, our faculty is quite an august group of educators. What I like most about my colleagues is it’s very hard to find a weak link among my fellow educators. From the counselors in our front office to the teams in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade, to the teachers of our electives, to those who teach languages, a nurse who cares for all 1,200+ students on her own, and finally to those who support our neediest students in special education, speech therapy, and so on, you’ll find a group that is as professional as they are intentional, and their only wish would be that they had more time to share together.
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Additionally, I know of at least a half-dozen colleagues who left our school to raise their kids and then returned, and they’re some of the best teachers I’ve ever seen. The best part of that return? They would only re-enter the classroom if they could call our school their home once more. That’s a powerful draw.
But what’s most impressive is that this also applies to our support staff. From the custodian who opens all our doors in the morning to the library aide who could help you with a favor in a heartbeat, to the cafeteria workers who’ve learned to place fun and nutrition in a blender for all to enjoy (even the staff buys the food for breakfast and lunch with regularity), to the front office staff who keep the school of nearly 1,300 students humming, you’ll find nothing short of a well-oiled machine.
Hiring good people and getting the hell out of their way never sounded so good.
Most of all, the distinction of a NBRS applies to the students. I feel so grateful each day that I walk into our school because I’m greeted with a chorus of hellos. At the end of the day, high-5’s bounce off my hand – I always seem to get more and harder slaps when it’s the weekend. In between, I meet 140 students who rarely complain, are appreciative of what they have, and are invested in the moment because they’re invested in themselves. In schools where sloth and apathy are the norm, these traits are ostracized in our school. Students set high bars for themselves and for one another, and in turn, that drives us all – and, most notably, took us to the destination of this venerable distinction.
It’s because of this student-based culture that my wife and I jumped at the chance to move into our school district. In 5 years, our son will attend the nearby elementary. In 10, he’ll join our “Blue Ribbon” middle school.
I personally didn’t need this designation to know what a special place I teach at. I don’t think anybody at our school did. Not one bit. But isn’t that what makes the distinction that much more applicable? Isn’t that what makes it all the sweeter?
Next year, 300+ schools will claim the 2018 Blue Ribbon status but know that if you teach at a special place surrounding by special people, you don’t need a ribbon to remind you of it. I know I sure don’t.