St. Thomas More a finalist for National Blue Ribbon

St. Thomas More a finalist for National Blue Ribbon

CHAMPAIGN — The High School of St. Thomas More is a finalist for what the U.S. Department of Education considers its highest honor.

The Champaign school is on the short list to receive a National Blue Ribbon. Only 50 private schools nationwide will earn that rating this year, said Aba Kumi, the program's director.

The distinction would be a first in the area. While eight local schools have been among the more than 7,000 chosen since the award was launched in 1982 — Champaign Central was a two-time winner (1989, '94) — STM would become the first non-public school honored.

The Illinois private schools to win in recent years have all come from the same part of the state — of nine honored last year, eight were part of the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago; the other, a Lutheran school in Arlington Heights.

The Department of Education calls Blue Ribbons the most "coveted" award a school can receive. The program rewards up to 420 schools a year — public and private — for exhibiting excellence in educational achievement or showing significant improvement in academic programs, Kumi said.

"It goes beyond recognizing individual students and teachers and sets a broader focus on the performance of an entire school and everyone involved within it," said STM Principal Ryan Bustle, who expects to learn later this month whether his school made the cut. The awards will be handed out at a November ceremony in Washington, D.C., Kumi said.

Private schools can only win for being "exemplary high-performing schools" and must rank in the top 15 percent of math and reading scores for state tests, national tests or both. Graduation rates must be at least 95 percent.

STM's graduation rate is 99 percent, and its ACT test scores for reading and math exceed state levels in all categories, according to Bustle.

In English, 91 percent of STM's 2013 graduating class met national test score benchmarks, whereas just 63 percent of students across the state met the same standard. The gap was similar in math, reading and science.

A Blue Ribbon School award does not expire, according to Kumi, but the date the award is received must be included in its title and schools are only allowed to earn them once every five years. Bustle said STM plans to continue to pursue the award as often as it can, calling the opportunity to win this year a "monumental accomplishment" for a school that was founded in 2000.

The impact of winning can be equally big, education department officials say — leading to everything from re-energized staff and parents to new business partners and volunteers.

For the last Champaign school to win, the progress came before the award presentation.

Stratton Elementary hadn't been making meeting federal AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) standards, so new programs and teachers were added to improve conditions, now-Principal Stephanie Eckels said.

In 2005, that led to a Blue Ribbon.

"Classes were made smaller, enrichment activities were added during the school day and the curriculum was changed to be more responsive to the needs of students," Eckels said. "Eventually, we were able to make AYP and close achievement gaps and that's why we were awarded the ribbon."

Making the grade

How St. Thomas More's 2013 graduating class performed in national test score benchmarks — compared to how other state high schools fared:

Category STM State
English 91% 63%
Math 74% 42%
Reading 71% 41%
Science  74% 35%


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