St. John Neuman School earns Blue Ribbon status

COLUMBIA — St. John Neumann School has earned not one, but three top academic honors, and they are only two months into the school year.
The most recent announcement came from the U.S. Dept. of Education, which named St. John Neumann a 2008 National Blue Ribbon School. The award is made even more remarkable because they are the only school, public or private, to receive the Blue Ribbon honor in South Carolina this year.
Established in 1982, the award recognizes schools that are either academically superior or demonstrate dramatic gains in student achievement through the No Child Left Behind program.
Gayle Mitchiner, assistant principal of St. John Neumann, said they earned the award based on academic achievement. Students at the school consistently rank in the top 10 percent in the nation on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, which is a nationally standardized test.
“I think the key to our award is our teachers,” Mitchiner said. “The teachers are in turn supported by the parents, and our kids are excellent students.”
She also credits Barbara Cole, principal, as a driving force behind the school’s overall success.
St. John Neumann also received Blue Ribbon status in 1999 when Sister Canice Adams was principal, Mitchiner said. Schools may apply every five years to maintain the award, but in the intervening years, Sister Canice left and Cole came on board. According to criteria set by the Dept. of Education, a principal must be in place for a certain number of years, so St. John had to wait to reapply.  
Cole said their motto, “Experience Success,” is more than just words.
“The support, leadership and encour agement of Father (Frederick) Masad, faculty, parents, parishioners, family and friends” bring the slogan to life, she said.
Cole will travel to Washington, D.C., on Oct. 21 to receive the award, which will be presented by either President George Bush or Margaret Spellings, U.S. Secretary of Education.
The principal has been extremely busy in recent weeks. Cole was in Chicago on Sept. 19 to make a presentation and accept an Inviting Schools Fidelity Award from the International Alliance for Invitational Education.  
St. John Neumann earned the Inviting Schools Award in 2002, which was the first year the award was presented. School officials were asked to apply for the Fidelity Award because they have maintained their inviting atmosphere through the years, Mitchiner said.
She noted that this award is based on all the little things a school does, such as creating a clean, attractive entryway; painting murals on the school walls; and having teachers stand at classroom doors to greet the students as they arrive.
A week after receiving the Fidelity Award, Cole accepted the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools certificate of accreditation for her school.
St. John Neumann is one of five schools in the Diocese of Charleston to earn SACS accreditation. The others are St. Peter and Cardinal Newman in Columbia, St. Mary Help of Christians in Aiken, and Bishop England in Charleston.
The diocese is working on a plan to win accreditation for all the schools.
The Blue Ribbon award is considered one of the highest honors that an American school can achieve. St. Andrew in Myrtle Beach is the only other diocesan school to garner Blue Ribbon status. They were honored in 2005.  
“It is quite an accomplishment,” Mitchiner said. “We have quite an extensive celebration planned.”
The students also have reaped the rewards from their hard work. Mitchiner said they had an ice cream party to celebrate the Fidelity Award, and received sacks of goodies for the SACS accreditation.
A special celebration to honor and thank everyone involved with obtaining Blue Ribbon status is planned for Oct. 23.
When asked what the school plans to tackle next, Mitchiner laughed. “Now we have to maintain our successful experience,” she said.
She added that the school is instituting a Differential Instruction program geared at meeting individual students’ needs.