School at Virginia Parish Wins National ‘Blue Ribbon’ Distinction

Stephen Mangione Around the Province

Images used by St. Francis of Assisi School to celebrate and share its recent recognition. (Graphic courtesy of Jodi Salley)

TRIANGLE, Va. – Students and staff at St. Francis of Assisi School in a small community in Prince William County have the blues – and they couldn’t be happier.

Even the classroom walls could not contain the eruption by students and faculty, whose collective elation and applause reverberated through the corridors on a recent afternoon when John O’Connor, OFM, joined principal Tricia Barber on the public address system to announce that St. Francis of Assisi had received the prestigious designation of National Blue Ribbon School for 2019. The celebration was just beginning.

A video message from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was played during all lunch periods on Sept. 26, and students indulged in blue popsicles and rice crispy treats dyed with blue food coloring. Soon after the announcement made it official, a banner – with the National Blue Ribbon emblem – was draped across the front entrance of the school building. The blue theme continued several days later, on the feast day of St. Francis, when students and staff had a little extra bounce in their step at the school’s annual Oct. 4 Walk-a-thon, during which they wore blue ribbons to express their pride and let the community know of their new-found acclaim.

Students enter St. Francis of Assisi School school, greeted by their principal and pastor. (Photo courtesy of Jodi Salley)

The northern Virginia school, which educates students from pre-K through grade eight – and is part of the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, and is affiliated with St. Francis of Assisi Parish – is one of only 362 elementary, middle and high schools nationwide to receive this coveted distinction from the U.S. Department of Education. This was no easy feat, considering that more than 100,000 schools across the country made applied for the honor.

To provide further perspective, St. Francis of Assisi is one of only 50 private educational institutions in the U.S. – and the only Catholic school in the entire state of Virginia – to receive this designation. The school was selected in its first-ever application for Blue Ribbon status.

“Education has always been an important part of what Holy Name does as a province and what we do as friars. This Blue Ribbon award for our school validates the Franciscan commitment to educational excellence and educating young people,” said John, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish since 2017.

“This designation demonstrates that we as Franciscans not only seek and advocate excellence in higher education, but also on the elementary and middle school levels,” said John, who taught theology and served as the director of campus ministry during a nine-year assignment at St. Bonaventure University, one of two HNP-sponsored colleges.

Tribute to Faculty and Students
John said that the Blue Ribbon recognition is “a tribute to our administration, faculty and staff for the atmosphere of academic excellence they have created, as well as a tribute to our students, who are excelling in this environment.”

He added, “Parishioners are very proud of this award for our school and the achievements of our students. They showed that in resounding applause when we made the announcement at Sunday Mass.”

Barber, who started her 25th year as principal of the school when the doors opened for the 2019-20 session, said the St. Francis community is thrilled about its Blue Ribbon status.

“This validates the work of our teachers and their commitment to excellence in Catholic education, which is a hallmark of being a Franciscan Catholic school. We truly have a building of master teachers who view their work as a vocation, not as a job,” Barber said.

“Our students understand that they are a big part of this designation because it is based on their academic success and excellence,” said Barber, who added that “no one is going to rest on their laurels – and, if anything, this is motivation to strive and improve even further.”

She also cited as an important contributing factor the common thread that runs through the school. “It’s one that our faculty consistently strives to model – the words of St. Francis, which are, ‘Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary use words,’” the principal said.

Barber is deeply proud of the fact that faculty members could take ownership of the Blue Ribbon honor because they were involved in the planning and application process from the outset.

The team effort began at a faculty meeting in August 2018, when Barber proposed exploring the application process for the National Blue Ribbon designation. Her suggestion was met with such enthusiasm that planning began two months later at a professional development workshop.

“Our teachers came with steno pads, ready to crunch the data and dive into the comprehensive and intense process,” Barber recalled. “Every faculty member was assigned to an area that they knew best – for example, the faith committee focused on ecumenical and outreach components.”

John noted that the school fosters extensive community outreach efforts deeply rooted in the Franciscan foundation – with programs ranging from care for creation and collecting baby items for a local crisis pregnancy center, to filling Christmas stockings for the Salvation Army angel tree and assembling hygiene kits for a homeless shelter. Additionally, students have raised more than $20,000 since 2007 for their sister school in Lima under the “Pennies for Peru” initiative – funds that have helped provide classroom supplies, a new bus, and other necessities.

Strength in Diversity
“We engage families and community in these activities – and all of these are teachable moments for our students,” Barber said. “Our diversity and learning from different cultures and backgrounds is one of our strengths, so that was a major element of our application.”

With a population of nearly 240 students, the school is 45% cultural minority because of its close proximity to Washington, D.C., and the Quantico Marine Corps base. “We are particularly proud of this diversity because it adds so much to the Franciscan spirit,” Barber said.

In the application, the school also focused on its innovative cross-curriculum (part of the STEM program, which integrates subjects like science and math), meeting self-imposed goals such as providing an all-day pre-K program, and offering a multitude of after-school activities (such as the Rosary, computer and robotics clubs).

Principal Tricia Barber and Pastor John O’Connor welcome students to the ‘Blue Ribbon’ school. (Photo courtesy of Jodi Salley)

Among its strategies and initiatives for academic excellence are its full-time assistant teachers (for kindergarten through fifth grade) who work with small groups to meet distinct learning styles – from those requiring remedial assistance to those achieving beyond their grade level.

Officials of the Diocese of Arlington praised the Blue Ribbon achievement. “This award acknowledges the quality of education at St. Francis of Assisi and demonstrates the collaborative efforts of parents and Catholic educators in the academic and faith formation of our students,” Bishop Michael Burbidge said in a press release.

John and Barber are scheduled to attend a Nov. 15 awards ceremony at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Fort Washington, Maryland, where they – along with representatives of the other 361 Blue Ribbon Schools for 2019 – will receive a special plaque and flag. The school plans to display the plaque prominently inside the entry hall, while the flag will be draped from the rafters in the gymnasium.

The accolades will continue this month for the Triangle school – which opened its doors in 1957 – when it receives a Purple Star to acknowledge students for their service projects and support of local military families. The principal and members of the student council and their faculty moderator will receive special recognition at the Nov. 19 meeting of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors.

In the video message announcing the 362 National Blue Ribbon Schools for 2019, DeVos said, “We recognize and honor your important work in preparing students for successful careers and meaningful lives. As a National Blue Ribbon School, your school demonstrates what is possible when committed educators hold all students and staff to high standards and create vibrant, innovative cultures of teaching and learning.”

News about St Francis of Assisi School can be found on the St. Francis of Assisi School, Triangle, Virginia, Facebook page.

 – Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.