The federal government started the Blue Ribbon education awards in 1982. They are available to up to 420 schools every year, with individual schools eligible for nomination every five years.
This year, 367 schools received the designation nationwide, including 21 in Illinois, according to the Education Department.
The Blue Ribbon designation is available to two categories of nominee: “Exemplary High Performing Schools,” where students score the highest on standardized tests, and “Exemplary Achievement Gap Closing Schools,” which have shown success in narrowing academic disparities among students.
In Illinois, each of the eight private schools to receive the designation, including both Woodland Academy and School of St. Mary, did so with its performance on academic assessments. Only schools with standardize tests scores that average in the top 15th percentile nationwide may apply for the “high-performing” designation. Each of the 13 Illinois public schools in to win the award received it in the gap-closing category.
“Congratulations to this year’s National Blue Ribbon School awardees,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said Thursday in a statement announcing the winners. “It’s a privilege to recognize the extraordinary work you do to meet students’ needs and prepare them for successful careers and meaningful lives.”
Rocco Gargiulo is principal of Woodlands Academy, at the all-girls high school at 760 E. Westleigh Road, where he also teaches math.
“I am so proud that Woodlands Academy has been named a 2020 Exemplary High Performing National Blue Ribbon School by the US Department of Education,” Gargiulo said in a statement. “This award validates all the hard work that our dedicated faculty and staff do daily to provide an excellent academic experience for each of our students.”
Woodlands Academy has 132 students, including 25 boarding students, according to its Blue Ribbon award application. Founded in 1958 and moved to Lake Forest in 1904, the school operates independently under the Chicago Archdiocese. The school spends nearly $52,000-a-year per student, with about a third of the student body receiving financial assistance to pay its tuition.
Meg Steele is head of school for Woodlands Academy, the equivalent of a superintendent for a one-school district. She praised the school community for its first-ever Blue Ribbon award.
“I am so proud of our entire Woodlands Academy community for achieving this outstanding national recognition of the work they do every day educating our students,” Steele said. “It truly honors who we are and how we deliver on our goal of empowering girls to change the world – whether it’s here in our classrooms or remotely due to COVID-19 precautions.”
School of St. Mary, 185 E. Illinois Road, operates under the archdiocese and includes 369 students in preschool through eighth grade.
According to its Blue Ribbon application, the school’s student body has diversified over the past decade from just the Lake Forest and Lake Bluff area to 19 ZIP codes.
It said the 2015 closing of St. James School in Highwood brought tremendous cultural and economic diversity that solidified the St. Mary school community. The school spends about $9,000 per year, per student with 5 percent of the student body receiving scholarship assistance or reduced tuition.
This year marks the third time School of St. Mary has been named a National Blue Ribbon recipient, its last designation coming in 2012.
The 2020 award makes it one of only 38 private schools in the county to be three-time winners, according to a statement from Principal David Wieters.
“The School of St. Mary greatly appreciates the many dedicated stakeholders in the community who support and enable excellence in Catholic education,” Wieters said. “Generations of families, educators, clergy, and leaders contribute to this historic achievement.”
An online awards ceremony is scheduled for Nov. 12 and Nov. 13, and schools will receive flags and plaques honoring their designation through the mail, according to the Education Department.