Brentsville District High School is one of only six schools in the state to receive a No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon School award from the U.S. Department of Education.
Brentsville is the first public school in Prince William County to be awarded the designation since the Blue Ribbon School program began in 1982. The program recognizes Brentsville as a "national model of excellence," according to the Education Department. Linton Hall School, a Catholic school in western Prince William, received the award in 2003.
"It's great for our teachers and for our students," Brentsville Principal Michael Mulgrew said.
The information packet compiled by the high school as a part of the nomination process will soon be available on the Education Department's Web site, an agency official said. The goal is for other schools across the country to read about the programs at successful schools such as Brentsville.
When the Blue Ribbon program began, schools were measured on criteria created by the federal government, said Stephen O'Brien, director of recognition programs for the Education Department.
"We told schools what they needed to do, and if you do these things, you'll be a really good school," O'Brien said.
Test scores are an important part of the process. For years, schools were also evaluated on other criteria such as principal leadership and parental involvement.
With the advent of No Child Left Behind, the process changed last year. Although there is strong anecdotal evidence that leadership and parental involvement are important, there's no scientific proof that such factors improve schools, O'Brien said.
Today, Blue Ribbon schools are selected primarily on their test scores. In Virginia, those are the state Standards of Learning tests. Schools that perform well on the SOLs are nominated for the award. They then put together a package showing what they do to promote high achievement.
"It changed to, 'Let's find out the really good schools and hold them up as national models,' " O'Brien said of the Department of Education's criteria.
"It's amazing how [other winning schools'] strategies and our strategies are similar," said Mulgrew, who had examined application packages from other schools that won the award.
Since the modifications in the wake of No Child Left Behind, schools must be nominated for Blue Ribbon status by the Virginia Department of Education. In the past, they were able to nominate themselves.
The program honors public and private schools that are either academically superior in their states or that demonstrate dramatic gains in student achievement. Blue Ribbon schools must meet one of two criteria: have at least 40 percent of their students from disadvantaged backgrounds and show improvement on test scores, or score in the top 10 percent on state tests. Brentsville qualified in the latter category.
In recent years, Brentsville has had among the highest SOL test scores in county schools. Its 1,000 students have a 90 percent pass rate in many subjects, from math to reading to science.
In addition, the school made "adequate yearly progress" this year, a new federal requirement instituted by No Child Left Behind.
Installing the Cambridge program at the school has helped improve academic standards there, Mulgrew said. The four-year international college preparatory program encourages such skills as independent research and application of knowledge. Like students in the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs at other county high schools, Cambridge participants take standardized tests that can count toward college credit.
Even students who are not in the program benefit from having Cambridge-trained teachers, Mulgrew said. Students "will see [the benefit] across their entire curriculum," he said.
Having teachers who work close together is also a benefit, he said.
"Your P.E. teachers have to have academic rigor and high standards," he said. "They all have to have high standards, not just the ones being tested."
Other Blue Ribbon schools in Virginia include Arlington Traditional Elementary in Arlington County and C. Hunter Ritchie Elementary in Fauquier County.