March 21, 2008

NCEA Convention

Archdiocese of Indianapolis schools set Blue Ribbon record

Christine Cohn, U.S. Department of Education official, celebrates with St. Christopher students in Indianapolis after their school was named a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence. (File photo by Brandon A. Evans)

Christine Cohn, U.S. Department of Education official, celebrates with St. Christopher students in Indianapolis after their school was named a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence. (File photo by Brandon A. Evans)

By G. Joseph Peters

When U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced the 2005 No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon Schools in September 2005, 11 schools in Indiana received the award. Five of those were Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

An awards ceremony was held in Washington, D.C., in November. Two representatives from each school—the principal and a teacher—participated in the ceremony, and received a plaque and a flag signifying their school’s Blue Ribbon status. Only 295 schools nationwide were honored for 2005, including 50 private and religious schools.

The story has been similar each fall for five years. Four schools in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis received Blue Ribbon awards in 2003, six schools in 2004, five schools in 2005, six schools in 2006, and one in 2007 for a total of 22 awards in the past five years. Before 2003, eight schools had received Blue Ribbons under the former Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence (BRSE) program.

Since the first Blue Ribbon was awarded in 1985, 24 Catholic schools in the archdiocese have earned 31 national Blue Ribbons. There are 71 Catholic schools in the archdiocese. (See a complete listing of our honored schools)

Holy Family School in New Albany, Ind., received its second Blue Ribbon award in 2005. St. Jude School and St. Lawrence School, both in Indianapolis, and Cathedral High School, a private school in Indianapolis (2004), also have been honored twice. Roncalli High School in Indianapolis has earned the honor three times.

Schools in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis received more awards during the last five years than any other diocese. We believe that no other diocese in the nation has had more schools honored in the history of the national Blue Ribbon Schools program.

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Blue Ribbon Schools program recognizes schools that make significant progress in closing the achievement gap or whose students achieve at very high levels. The schools submit an extensive application and are selected by a panel based on one of three criteria:

  • Schools with at least 40 percent of their students from disadvantaged backgrounds that dramatically improve student performance on state tests.
  • Schools whose students, regardless of background, achieve in the top 10 percent of their state on state tests.
  • Private schools that achieve in the top 10 percent in the nation.

Encouragement to participate

Annette “Mickey” Lentz, executive director of Catholic education and faith formation for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, was principal of St. Mark School in Indianapolis, the first school in the archdiocese to earn a Blue Ribbon in 1985, just after the first national program began.

As executive director since 1997, she has encouraged principals to participate in the program as a way to have the excellence of their schools affirmed by a significant third party. She personally reviews and signs each application.

Dr. Ron Costello, Ed.D., superintendent of schools, noted that the performance requirements have changed drastically under the new NCLB Blue Ribbon Program.

In the former program, school performance was considered, but the final award was determined by evaluation of an extensive application that covered many areas and required an onsite visit to verify the application.

There is still an extensive application, but no site visit, and Costello said that “merely to apply, school performance must be improving dramatically, which is often difficult to measure, or the students’ overall performance must surpass the 90th percentile in the state as measured on standardized tests.”

Because all schools in the archdiocese are state-accredited and all students take the required ISTEP+ tests, the State of Indiana certifies private schools in the top 10 percent of all schools in Indiana as eligible to apply for a Blue Ribbon through the Council for American Private Education (CAPE).

Costello believes that his sharing of the eligibility information with schools has helped spur the number of applications in the past few years. There is now “ … a great desire to participate and a healthy competition among the schools, which also involves a willingness to help one another through the process.”

Expectation of high standards

Sister James Michael Kesterson, a Sister of Providence and principal of St. Jude Elementary School in Indianapolis, led the efforts to earn two Blue Ribbons for St. Jude School in 1996 and 2003.

In 2005-06, she gave four regional presentations in the archdiocese to potential Blue Ribbon applicants and helped two schools with their applications. She also served as a Blue Ribbon School visitor under the former Blue Ribbon program, and believes that she helps other schools by sharing what she learned on those visits.

As a longtime administrator, she said that the Blue Ribbon process has energized her, and she hopes to apply for St. Jude to receive a third Blue Ribbon.

Jerry Ernstberger is another two-time Blue Ribbon School principal at Holy Family School in New Albany.

He noted that Holy Family has earned the award under the two sets of criteria.

“The first award was recognition for high quality in several components of school life; the second is based more on our students’ high achievement on standardized tests.”

Ernstberger added, “I think there is an expectation of higher standards that comes with receiving the honor, especially the second time. Parents, teachers and even students realize that we have to be more accountable than ever because of the recognition we have received.

“So, we expect to work even harder and we have to be more creative and more collaborative. I think that attitude and commitment will promote continued success for our students,” he said. “Parents make many sacrifices to provide the highest quality Catholic education and faith formation for our children, and the Blue Ribbon is a huge public recognition for them.”

Joe Hollowell is the longtime president and former principal of Roncalli High School, and Chuck Weisenbach is the principal. They and the Roncalli team have sought and earned three Blue Ribbons, a record in Indiana.

“I believe that being selected as a Blue Ribbon School adds a level of credibility to any school’s claims of excellence in academic and co-curricular programming,” Hollowell said. “It is a credible third party—the U.S. Department of Education—confirming that a school has met a certain standard of excellence.

“The designation can’t be purchased or won through glitzy advertising. When parents are looking at today’s tuition costs, there is a new degree of scrutiny as to whether or not the investment made will pay dividends in the life of their children,” Hollowell said. “The Blue Ribbon designation helps parents see past the school’s public relations claims to detect the potential of a real return on investment for their children.”

Hollowell added, “In 1993, the first year we received the Blue Ribbon recognition, our enrollment was 724 students. This fall, 15 years and three Blue Ribbons later, we began with an enrollment of 1,147.”

Department of Education visits

For the past five years, Kristine Cohn, U.S. Department of Education regional representative, has visited each of the 22 schools in the archdiocese that earned a Blue Ribbon award.

She meets with administrators and teachers, visits classrooms and speaks to the student body at an assembly, affirming their Blue Ribbon status with a special certificate. She always stays to observe student prayers, performances and cheers.

This has been no small undertaking on her part with so many schools to visit and distances between schools that are 100 miles or more apart in the archdiocese.

The special events with Cohn allow the children to celebrate their achievement. It helps students to“ … see themselves as part of a larger picture—a larger community,” according to Lentz, who has accompanied Cohn on the many of the school visits.

Cohn told students and teachers at St. Michael School in Greenfield, Ind., that there are four things that make up a good school: “… committed community, excellent teachers, involved parents and great students. You are one of only 11 schools in the state to be honored as a Blue Ribbon school, which means that all those involved with the school have taken a leadership role to do what is right.”

Former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson proclaimed Nov. 7, 2005, as “St. Thomas Aquinas School Day” in the city in recognition of that school’s Blue Ribbon.

In presenting the proclamation, the mayor said, “This means you’re the best of the best. … You have great teachers … great involved parents … the school is well-run, [and] each of you students works really hard every day to do your best.”

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis has experienced great success in having a large number of schools recognized as Blue Ribbon Schools over the years. This has not been because of a formal program, but through subtle encouragement, supplemented by healthy peer pressure and peer support in a demanding process.

Archdiocesan officials like to think that our archdiocesan curriculum improvement efforts have also contributed significantly to student performance. The new NCLB criteria for the Blue Ribbon start with a “gateway.”

Schools must pass through the gate—with high standardized test scores before any other criteria are considered. Schools need to know when they are eligible through good management and sharing of test data.

The Blue Ribbon brings public recognition, but also accountability and even higher expectations for performance. It places the school’s achievements in a larger context—on a bigger stage. It is a great public “thank you” to parents who pay the bills, and it affirms their investment in Catholic education.

(G. Joseph Peters is associate executive director of Catholic education in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. E-mail him at This story is adapted from an article in Momentum, the official journal of the National Catholic Educational Association, April/May 2006. Used with permission. Contact: Barbara Keebler, NCEA, at 202-378-5762.) †

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