10 Philly, suburban schools win national honor

Student Lily Dominus, 8, cheers as she hears the news that Penn Alexander was among the recipients of the National Blue Ribbon Award.

Confetti cannons rained blue paper on 550 eager boys and girls as Principal Michael Farrell trumpeted the news Wednesday: Penn Alexander, a West Philadelphia K-8, had been named one of the best schools in the nation.

U.S. Secretary of Education John King designated Penn Alexander and nine other local schools as "shining examples" for others around the country, winners of the 2016 National Blue Ribbon.

For Penn Alexander, a Philadelphia School District elementary that operates in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania, it was especially sweet.

"We talk about collaboration and group work with our kids all the time," Farrell said. "They see that this school is different, and it's unique. And now it's being celebrated because of its collaboration - that's a big takeaway."

Across the nation, 329 schools were singled out for excellence. Schools win the honor either for strong academic performance or for work in narrowing the achievement gap among groups of students.

In addition to Penn Alexander, the other local winners are:

Philadelphia: Folk Arts Cultural Treasures Charter School and St. Mary Interparochial School.

Suburbs: Great Valley Middle School, Malvern; Holy Family, Phoenixville; Wissahickon High School, Ambler; Strath Haven High School, Wallingford; St. Philip Neri, Lafayette Hill; Pickering Valley Elementary School, Downingtown; St. Genevieve, Flourtown.

Penn Alexander opened in 2001 in partnership with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the university, which provides financial support and other assistance.

School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said Penn Alexander - where parents used to camp out prior to kindergarten registration to assure their children's spot - showed what is possible for all city schools.

Its "rigorous academic curriculum and array of educational enrichment activities engages students in art, science, and technology and has been making a difference in West Philadelphia since the day it opened 15 years ago," Hite said in a statement.

Penn president Amy Gutmann said she was "delighted" at the announcement.

"Penn Alexander has become a model for how university and school district partnerships can transform young lives, opening wide the doors of education," Gutmann said in a news release.

Folk Arts Cultural Treasures (FACTS) principal Pheng Lim hailed her school's designation as "amazing news." The school, which has 478 K-8 students, will hold a pep rally Thursday morning to celebrate.

Lim said the honor was especially meaningful because FACTS qualifies for extra funding under a federal program because of the large number of low-income children it enrolls.

Sister Theresa Maugle, principal of St. Genevieve in Flourtown, said her school was especially honored to be among just 50 nonpublic schools recognized across the country.

"It's quite exciting," said Maugle, who has been principal of the Montgomery County school for 18 years.

It was the third time St. Genevieve was named a Blue Ribbon winner. The small Catholic school with 272 K-8 students also won Blue Ribbons in 2001 and 2006.

Maugle said her school continued to apply for the honor because "it focuses us on moving forward in education. We don't ever want to be thought of as standing still."

St. Genevieve's most recent application stressed the use of classroom technology and individualized instruction.

This year's honor is the fourth Blue Ribbon for Great Valley Middle School, but principal Edward Souders said the prize never gets old.

He walked from room to room, watching students' reactions as they learned of the honor.

"It was neat to explain to the kids what this meant, to hear them cheer as they were acknowledged for what they bring to the table every day," Souders said. "It's a reflection of our students and our teachers. They just work so hard."

And at Wissahickon High School in Ambler, a delighted principal Lynne Blair had just heard the news.

"I'm very, very proud," Blair said. "It's a well-balanced place that prioritizes both academics and kids' character development."

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