Five area schools scored a prestigious National Blue Ribbon, including a city school that won for the second time, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced Tuesday.
Franklin Towne Charter High School, Norwood-Fontbonne Academy, and Hill-Freedman World Academy, all in Philadelphia, won the award given by the Department of Education. So did Merion Elementary School in Lower Merion and Mount St. Joseph Academy in Flourtown.
The award has special meaning for Hill-Freedman, a Philadelphia School District magnet school that has long educated middle schoolers and is expanding to become a high school as well. The school currently has 400 sixth through 10th graders split between two buildings in Northwest Philadelphia.
It's unique as a city magnet school - while gifted students make up about 70 percent of its population, the other 30 percent receive special-education services. It also offers the rigorous International Baccalaureate program.
Its students, most of whom live below the poverty line, post top scores on state exams. In 2013, 93 percent met standards in math and 95 percent in reading.
Principal Anthony Majewski streamed Duncan's afternoon Blue Ribbon announcement with middle school students, celebrating Hill-Freedman's honor with soft pretzels.
"I am the luckiest principal on Earth," Majewski said. "I got to pick an awesome staff, our kids are amazing, our parents are amazing. We've created a positive, academically rigorous environment. Everybody is pushing to the next level, and they don't ever give up."
Hill-Freedman won the award despite tough odds. Like other district schools, it has lost staff and struggled with budget cuts.
The money crunch meant Majewski had to cut out some supports for students, but the staff has come together to push forward, he said.
"We're still focused on what's best for kids," Majewski said.
The Blue Ribbon is a coveted prize won in prior years by city standouts such as Masterman and Central. Hill-Freedman previously won the honor in 2006.
"The application process," Majewski said, "is no joke."
But the reams of paperwork were well worth it, Majewski said.
"Very few schools in this area get to wear that badge," Majewski said.
Philadelphia School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., in a statement, said the district was "tremendously proud of Hill-Freedman World Academy."
"Winning a National Blue Ribbon School award once is quite an accomplishment," Hite said. "Winning the award twice is an exceptional feat."