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Changes afoot for Blue Ribbon Schools

Tuesday, July 30, 2002

By Jane Elizabeth, Post-Gazette Education Writer

Beginning next year, the prestigious "Blue Ribbon School" banner could be hanging in some unexpected places.

The U.S. Department of Education yesterday announced new rules for the program that for 20 years has honored almost exclusively the country's wealthiest and most monochromatic suburban schools.

But when this year's applications are collected from school districts around Pennsylvania, at least half of them must come from schools in which 40 percent or more of the students are from low-income families.

About a third of the state's 3,300 public schools meet that definition. But those aren't the schools that typically have been named Blue Ribbon Schools, a program started in 1982 to honor academically successful and challenging classrooms.

Upper St. Clair School District, for instance, has won 10 Blue Ribbons since the award's inception in 1982. In Fox Chapel School District, all of the schools have won Blue Ribbon awards. Quaker Valley and Mt. Lebanon school districts also have been multiple winners.

None of those districts has a single school that meets the new low-income rule.

But they still might have a chance for a Blue Ribbon award under the program's second new criteria -- schools that score in the top 10 percent on statewide tests.

For low-income schools to be considered for the award, however, the schools also must have made "dramatic gains" in student achievement. It's up to each state to define "dramatic," said U.S. Education Department spokesman David Thomas.

The Blue Ribbon awards also will have a new name: the "No Child Left Behind-Blue Ribbon Schools Program."

"In keeping with the principles of the No Child Left Behind Act, we will reward schools based on student achievement results, not process," said U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige in an announcement yesterday.

"Schools chosen for the Blue Ribbon will be ones that are meeting our mission to ensure every child learns, and no child is left behind. Blue Ribbon recipients will be national models of excellence that others can learn from."

Winners, to be named in May as they always have been, will share their successful programs with other schools, Thomas said.

"We will hold those [winning] schools up as models and warehouse this information."

While state departments of education have the final say on who will be nominated, the program will accept a maximum of 350 to 400 applications, said Thomas. About 150 to 270 schools nationwide will win the award, as they do now, he added.

There are other major changes. Elementary and secondary schools will be honored each year; currently, they alternate.

Also, federal education officials will no longer visit the sites of potential winners, and will rely instead on recommendations from the state's top education official. State directors of the Council for American Private Education (CAPE) can nominate private schools.

Pennsylvania Department of Education spokeswoman Shawna McClintock said the state is working out details for eligibility. While the new rules say that the nonpoverty schools must be in the top 10 percent of statewide tests, it doesn't indicate which subject area or grade.

Pennsylvania schools that won the awards between 1999-2001 were mostly white suburban or rural schools.

Of the 26 state winners, only two were considered "urban or large central city" -- Broad Street Elementary School in Butler and Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children in Oakland.

About half of the winning schools in the state had student populations that were more than 95 percent white. Only three winners -- none of them in Western Pennsylvania -- had white populations of less than 80 percent.

Applications are due March 7. More information is available at http://www.nochildleftbehind.gov.

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