The 2020 National Blue Ribbon award comes as a validation of the efforts of the eight Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago that were honored this year, school leaders said. The awards honor high-achieving schools and those that close achievement gaps; of the 367 schools honored across the Unites States this year, 50 are non-public schools. “It validates our dedication to inspiring our students to achieve their full academic potential while empowering their spiritual growth,” said Sharon Garcia, principal of St. Francis Xavier School in La Grange, which also received a National Blue Ribbon in 2013. Erika Mickelburgh, principal at St. Paul of the Cross School in Park Ridge, said the recognition honors the students, staff and parents who have all worked hard. “I think acknowledging their hard work and excellence on the national stage is a tremendous honor that recognizes how great our school is,” Mickelburgh said. This was the second blue ribbon for St. Paul of the Cross, which was honored in 2011 as well. St. Clement School, 2524 N. Orchard St., received its first Blue Ribbon Award, as did Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart in Lake Forest. In addition to St. Francis Xavier and St. Paul of the Cross, St. Andrew, 1710 W. Addison St.; St. James, Arlington Heights; and St. John of the Cross, Western Springs, received their second Blue Ribbon awards. The School of St. Mary was honored for the third time, after having received the distinction in 1989-1990 and in 2012. “It’s a pretty significant accomplishment,” said David Wieters, St. Mary principal. “Everyone plays a role in this.” The announcement also sparked celebrations at St. James in Arlington Heights. “We were so excited,” said Julie Furmanski, a St. James parent. “It’s a pretty big deal for all of us at St. James. It really recognizes and validates the efforts of the past several years and the academic excellence that St. James has always prided itself on.” Four of Julie and Neil Furmanski’s five children attend St. James; the fifth is a graduate who attends St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights. Neil Furmanski said that even more important than the academics at St. James are the values that “are baked into the culture. It gives the kids something to fall back on when the world is an unpredictable place.” Father Matt Foley, St. James pastor, said the school has a culture of inclusivity, with enough scholarship funding to allow families who can’t afford the tuition to send their children there and facilities and staff to meet the needs of students with physical and intellectual challenges. “It’s a collective effort to be inclusive, based upon our communion with Jesus and communion with one another,” he said. “Everybody is accepted.” The award, he said, “keeps us humble. We’re blessed, but we’re blessed because God’s graced us, and we can always do better with the gifts God has given us.” Principal Mike Kendrick said the determination to do better is expressed in the school mantra, “Find a way.” “We continuously find a way and don’t let any challenges stop us from doing what’s best for our kids,” Kendrick said. “If we ever have a problem or a challenge, we find a way.” Kathleen Gorman, principal of St. John of the Cross, said the award gives the school something to work toward and helps everyone stay focused on the values of community, faith and academic excellence. “We strongly feel we are evangelizing the next generation of Catholics,” Gorman said. “We want them to leave here knowing they can be faith-filled individuals in our society.” Kendrick and other principals were working to find ways to celebrate safely, given social-distancing requirements. “Last time we did a big pep rally in the gym,” said Allen Ackermann, principal of St. Andrew, which was honored in 2013. “We’ll have to figure something else out.” Ackermann said the award recognizes the effectiveness of St. Andrew’s “Spirit. Study. Service.” message, and receiving it twice shows that school has a culture of excellence. “We wanted to prove it wasn’t a fluke,” he said. “This happens every day here.” The award also helps draw the attention of families considering where to send their children to school, he said, noting an uptick in interest the last time the school was honored. Mickelburgh said she thinks it was actually harder to be recognized the second time around. “You have to show that you’re still improving, that you’re not resting on your laurels,” she said.