By Joe Isenhower Jr.
Two schools with nearly identical names operated by LCMS congregations have been designated as 2008 “Blue Ribbon Schools” — the top honor of excellence given annually to individual schools by the U.S. Department of Education (USDE).
Those two schools are St. John’s Lutheran School, Bakersfield, Calif., and St. John Lutheran School, Ellisville, Mo.
U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced Sept. 9 the names of the 320 schools identified nationwide as the “No Child Left Behind” — Blue Ribbon Schools this year, including 50 private schools.
The USDE Blue Ribbon program — started in 1982 and currently part of President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” initiative — honors schools “selected either because they dramatically improved student performance on standardized tests in reading and math or because their test scores placed them in the top 10 percent of schools in the nation or state,” according to the USDE news release about this year’s Blue Ribbon honorees.
Schools receiving the honor also must include a foreign language in their curricula. For both LCMS schools this year, that language is Spanish.
The commissioner of education for each state nominates public schools for Blue Ribbon status, and the Council for American Private Education (CAPE) nominates private schools it has evaluated and endorsed.
“These Blue Ribbon Schools are an example of what teachers and students can achieve,” Spellings said. “Now our challenge is to help other schools follow their lead by continuing to measure progress through No Child Left Behind, and by using the knowledge we’ve gained to replicate effective strategies and help every student improve.”
William D. Cochran, director of School Ministry with LCMS District and Congregational Services, said the Blue Ribbon designation for Synod schools “is a sign of quality Christian education committed to meeting the needs of the child. It is a significant honor.”
Although Cochran said he did not know exactly how many Synod schools have received the honor since the program started, he indicated that “as many as eight to 10” have been named over recent years. Last year, two LCMS schools received the designation.
All 320 Blue Ribbon Schools for 2008 will be honored at an Oct. 18 award ceremony in Washington, D.C.
Principal Stephen Dinger and Instructional Pod Leader Patrice Appold will accept the award in Washington for St. John’s, Bakersfield. Accepting for St. John, Ellisville, will be principal Spencer Peregoy and Assistant Principal Julie Durst.
Dinger said that when he announced his school’s selection to students and teachers over the public-address system, he could hear applause, which was again heard as the announcement was made for worshipers at St. John’s Lutheran Church the following weekend.
Peregoy announced his school’s selection first in a teachers meeting, where he said the general attitude was “excitement that we were receiving the honor, while knowing that we have accomplished much together in moving our school forward.'”
He told parents about the honor at a Sept. 11 school open house. And he said applause also was common when the announcement was made at St. John Lutheran Church’s seven worship services the next weekend.
Both schools have relatively large enrollments in their K-8th Grade classes — 420 students at Ellisville and 302 in Bakersfield.
Noting that his school has “a more than 100-year legacy of Christian education,” Peregoy said St. John, Ellisville, is grateful for the award, “not with pride or boasting. We realize that great lay leadership and a teaching staff are faithfully invested in our school.”
Peregoy said that especially over the last decade, “improving the quality of education has been our constant posture, with steadily improving math and language-arts scores and “academically challenging curriculum changes applied to kids of all abilities.
“But more than that,” he added, “it’s humbling and exciting to see a faith-based school focused on more than just high test scores — really impacting the whole child in a holy way.”
“It’s a huge thing,” Peregoy said of the Blue Ribbon honor for his school. “It hasn’t set in yet as to how this can help us attract families looking for quality education while their children receive the Gospel message as well.”
Dinger said that since Spellings’ Sept. 9 Blue Ribbon Schools announcement, a marketing team including parents of St. John’s school has been at work determining “how to celebrate this honor and bring more children and families into our schools in a God-pleasing way.”
Dinger told Reporter that he views the Blue Ribbon designation as “an affirmation of faculty and staff that has been dedicated to quality Christian education” since the school’s founding 47 years ago — “and wonderful parental support. It didn’t happen overnight.”
Both schools have realized dramatic enrollment increases in recent years.
For St. John, Ellisville, enrollment has risen by about 100 since 2000. And the Bakersfield school has seen its student body increase by more than 80 in the past three years.
In August, 2007, St. John Lutheran School, Ellisville, dedicated a 45,000 square-foot addition with classrooms where students use laptop computers and SMART Board™ technology. The addition is allowing the school to add a third classroom for each grade.
At Bakersfield — where St. John’s Lutheran Church also operates what Dinger calls a “state-of-the-art” center for 200 children (infants through age 4) — the school will soon break ground for an addition with three kindergarten rooms.
“We are hurting for space,” said Dinger. “We’re very blessed with such steady growth.”
The two schools definitely serve their larger communities, according to the two principals.
“We are attracting more community families,” Peregoy told Reporter, adding that the Blue Ribbon honor highlights his school’s “compelling learning environment that differentiates us from other private and public schools.”
And there are 87 new students this fall at St. John’s, according to its principal — with nearly all of 53 new kindergartners and 90 percent of the 34 ne