Chicagoland

Eight schools awarded Blue Ribbon status this year

By Michelle Martin | Staff Writer
October 19, 2014

Eight schools awarded Blue Ribbon status this year

Eight Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago won Blue Ribbon awards from the U.S. Department of Education this year, extending a streak of success in the national school recognition program.
Students at St. Mary School in Buffalo Grove pose for a picture with U.S. Olympian Megan Bozek on March 11 in front of the school. St. Mary’s earned its second Blue Ribbon award. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)
Sean Heslin, a member of the student council at St. Cletus School in La Grange, attaches the flag during a ceremony on Aug. 30, 2011. St. Cletus is one of eight Catholic schools earning Blue Ribbon honors this year. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

Eight Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago won Blue Ribbon awards from the U.S. Department of Education this year, extending a streak of success in the national school recognition program.

The schools honored this year include: St. Cletus, LaGrange; SS. Faith, Hope and Charity, Winnetka; Holy Cross, Deerfield; St. Hubert, Hoffman Estates; St. John the Evangelist, Streamwood; St. Mary, Buffalo Grove; Prince of Peace, Lake Villa; and St. Viator High School, Arlington Heights. All were honored for their academic excellence.

The awards bring to 22 the number of archdiocesan schools awarded Blue Ribbon status in the past three years. Seventy archdiocesan schools have been honored since the program began in the 1982-1983 academic year, with several schools recognized more than once. Among this year’s honorees, Holy Cross School (1985), St. Mary School (2008) and St. Viator High School (2008) had previously won Blue Ribbons.

Nationally, 287 public schools and 50 private schools were honored this year.

Eileen Manno, principal of St. Viator High School, said the Sept. 30 announcement came as a surprise to most of the faculty as well as the students at the school because she completed and submitted the application on her own, hoping for a pleasant surprise.

But the award brings more than a morale boost, Manno said

The school’s test scores are consistently high, with an average composite ACT score above 26 for the last five years, in a school that admits students of all ability levels. There are 50 students from China and Korea enrolled as part of the Rev. Mark Francis Program, and the school recently moved to replace textbooks with iPads to allow more interactive learning.

“I couldn’t be prouder of the success our kids have,” Manno said. “The college money our kids are offered is in the millions. I am so thrilled for our faculty to receive this award.”

The Blue Ribbon Award helps St. Viator stand out in an area with excellent public schools, Manno said. “It’s important for all Catholic schools to go for this award,” she said. “It reminds people of all that the Catholic schools in this city are already doing.”

Margaret Hayes, principal of St. Cletus School in LaGrange, agreed. All eight archdiocesan schools honored this year are in the suburbs, and most are in high-achieving public school districts, she said. Being recognized by the Department of Education shows that the families who send their children to St. Cletus are making a good choice.

“We knew we were a Blue Ribbon school by our test scores,” Hayes said. “But this validates how hard the faculty work and it validates our parents sending them here. We have wonderful academics, but we are also teaching them religion. The easy choice is to send your kids to a public school; this just tells the parents that it’s worth it to make that sacrifice.”

Vito DeFrisco, principal of St. Hubert School in Hoffman Estates, said the award was “a long time coming” for his school. While the academics were always excellent, the school had to make a few changes to qualify for the award, such as instituting standardized testing at every grade level.

But he said it was worth it for the “clear stamp of approval” that comes with the award, which he believes belongs to the parents as well as the students and faculty. “We have very supportive parents here,” he said.

The path to success is no secret, DeFrisco said. “Hang in there. Just keep going. Always remember the mission. The mission is what’s best for the children.”

At St. John the Evangelist School in Streamwood — the first public or private school in its immediate area to be named a Blue Ribbon School — principal Mary Ellyn Billmeyer said she was “on cloud nine.”

Billmeyer started working on the application two years ago, about two years after arriving at the school, which was in danger of closing because of declining enrollment. The number of students has increased by nearly 100 since then, and the school is enjoying the accolades.

The Blue Ribbon will only help draw attention, said Billmeyer, who drew even more attention by dying her hair blue in celebration. When the faculty members found out about her plan, they joined in.

“I don’t think people knew who we were,” she said. To help get the word out, the school has made sure its students are visible in parish and community activities. “We are a school that you want to look at.”

Growing enrollment has become something of a doubleedged sword; this year, the school had a waiting list at some grades. With some rearranging, Billmeyer said, the school was able to accommodate everyone.

Holy Cross School in Deerfield also sometimes has trouble getting attention, said principal Janice DiVincenzo. “We are the hidden gem in this community,” she said. “A lot of people don’t know where the building is.”

While Holy Cross received a Blue Ribbon in the 1980s, this is the first time it’s been honored in nearly three decades. In all of its application materials, it emphasized the role of faith in the school.

“The level of Catholic identity and commitment is very high,” DiVicenzo said, noting that the school starts each year with a school-wide day of service on Sept. 14, the Feast of the Exultation of the Holy Cross. “This is a lovely place to be.”

While the school board originally suggested applying for the Blue Ribbon as a marketing point, Di- Vincenzo said the application process had its own benefits.

“It was a lot of work,” she said. “But it pulled us together.”

The school board at Prince of Peace School in Lake Villa also suggested that the school apply for a Blue Ribbon.

“It was a goal of the school board to show how excellent our program was,” Brown said.

The process of completing the application also helped the school community see how special it is, Brown said.

“We’re a small school,” she said. “When our students get to seventh and eighth grade, those teachers have known them since they were in kindergarten and first grade, and vice versa. The primary teachers get to see their students go through the school. That makes it easy to do a lot of vertical integration. There’s a lot of sharing.”

St. Mary School in Buffalo Grove won the same year St. Viator did, and applied again as soon as it was eligible.

“A lot has changed in the last five years,” said principal Nikki Raftery, who was named principal after the school’s previous award. “We have continued to advance our programs, our test scores have continued to rise, by 20 percent in some areas, and we still have a lot to celebrate. We were the 10th elementary school in Illinois to win the Blue Ribbon twice.”

Catholic schools in the archdiocese do well when it comes to the Blue Ribbon awards because they are held to high standards by Catholic schools Superintendent Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, Raftery said.

“Sister Mary Paul has set the culture of excellence very staunchly,” she said. “Our expectations are to teach kids from rigorous standards, and we all know that.”

Katie Carden, principal at SS. Faith, Hope and Charity School in Winnetka, also said the high standards set by the Office of Catholic Schools made it easier to achieve a Blue Ribbon, but said the parents also deserve credit.

Carden, who is in her third year as principal at the school, said the application process helped her get to know the school better.

“It was an opportunity to look at the school through a fine lens and see what we’re good at, where we’ve gotten a little stagnant and where we could get better,” she said.

Topics:

  • catholic schools
  • blue ribbon award
  • holy cross
  • st. cletus
  • st. hubert
  • st. john the evangelist
  • st. mary
  • prince of peace
  • st. viator high school
  • ss. faith hope and charity

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