Folger McKinsey Wins Blue Ribbon

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 29, 2005

At Clarksville Elementary School in Howard County, the share of students rated proficient on the 2005 Maryland School Assessments dipped no lower than 93 percent at any grade level tested in either reading or math.

At Folger McKinsey Elementary in Anne Arundel, proficiency rates reached 95 percent or better across the board on the statewide test.

And at Viers Mill Elementary in Montgomery, a campus where 35 percent of students lack English fluency, the proficiency rate in third-grade reading rose from 52 percent in 2003 to 90 percent in 2005.

For their accomplishments, all three schools this month earned the status of Blue Ribbon School, the highest honor the U.S. Education Department can bestow upon a school.

In this era of the federal No Child Left Behind initiative and yearly progress goals, the Blue Ribbon program has taken on new meaning. Formerly tailored to recognize overall school excellence, the Blue Ribbon award of today is all about academic achievement.

Before an overhaul of the program in 2002, schools nominated themselves for Blue Ribbon awards. The focus was less on test scores -- schools had to rate at the 60th percentile or better on a national scale and show improvement -- and more on overall school climate, as measured in book-length applications submitted to the federal government after screening by the state.

The overhaul followed a 2000 study by the Brookings Institution that concluded the Blue Ribbon too seldom recognized academic achievement. Brookings reviewed 70 Blue Ribbon schools in several states and found that just 19 had scored in the top 10 percent among demographically similar schools in their states.

Federal education officials changed the program to make it the responsibility of state education departments to nominate schools, a more objective process, and they set new criteria for the award. A school now must rate in the top 10 percent in its state in both reading and math, or the campus must perform at the 60th percentile or better in its state and show dramatic improvement over time with a population of economically disadvantaged students.

"It's not subjective; it's data driven. And that's good," said Nancy S. Grasmick, state superintendent of schools. "We used to have a lot of schools, they were reluctant to even apply, because they thought the process was too subjective."

Blue Ribbon awards went to 295 schools nationwide, including seven in Maryland and nine in Virginia. The Virginia list includes Leesburg Elementary School in Loudoun County and Our Lady of Good Counsel School in Fairfax County.

Viers Mill, in Silver Spring, provides as good an example as any of the goals embodied in No Child Left Behind, said Stephen O'Brien, director of recognition programs at the federal Education Department. Montgomery Superintendent Jerry D. Weast evidently shares that view; James J. Virga Jr., the Viers Mill principal, was promoted this year to a new position as a mentor to other principals.

Thirty-two languages are spoken at Viers Mill, and 62 percent of students qualify for subsidized meals by dint of low family income.

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