By MARNIE McALLISTER
Record Assistant Editor
ELIZABETHTOWN, Ky. — The United States Department of Education honored St. James School last Friday, Sept. 7, naming the regional Catholic school a 2012 National Blue Ribbon School.
St. James, which serves 419 children from preschool to the eighth grade, earned the distinction in the “exemplary high performing category,” meaning its test scores were among the highest in the state. It was one of 269 schools recognized nationally last week and one of five private schools in the state to receive the honor. Kentucky’s public Blue Ribbon Schools have not yet been named.
The school’s principal, Sister Michael Marie Friedman, said during an interview at the school Sept. 10 that the distinction is an honor for the whole community.
“I think a piece of this ribbon belongs to everybody,” said Sister Friedman, an Ursuline Sister of Mount St. Joseph.
She noted that the school is run on a “full stewardship” model, meaning that it’s supported by parish tithing at St. James Church rather than by tuition. Families from other parishes whose children attend the regional school tithe at St. James in addition to their own parishes.
All of those parishioners plus the school’s students, teachers and parents — who volunteer their time and talent at the school — earned this honor, said Sister Friedman.
She also credited those who figure in the school’s history, especially its founders, the Sisters of Loretto who opened St. Mary’s Academy in 1870. The name of that school was changed to St. James School in 1902 and its families have, for more than a century, continued to make sacrifices to receive a Catholic education, she said.
“These people sacrificed year after year to make Catholic education possible. We stand on huge shoulders. Hopefully, when we’re in our new building, 50 years from now, people will say the same thing about us,” Sister Friedman said.
St. James, which became a regional school several years ago, is relocating in early October to a new building which is nearing completion. The school plans to take a two-week fall break when school families and others in the community are expected to help move everything from the current school to the new one. Eventually, the parish plans to build new parish offices, a new sanctuary and possibly even a Catholic high school at the new site on Robinbrooke Boulevard.
Father Charles D. Walker, the pastor of St. James, said the parish community has always been proud of the school, but this distinction “makes me feel prouder.”
He believes two things brought the national honor to the school.
“I’ve been a pastor and an associate pastor at a lot of places that have a school but no other place emphasizes the Catholic part of Catholic education like here. It’s so emphasized because of Sister Michael Marie and the people she has gathered around her — the administration, faculty and staff,” he said.
“Secondly, the academic excellence is always here. By setting the bar high, getting teachers to teach good study skills, the students thrive. This is because of Sister Michael Marie’s dedication and persistence. It’s a credit to her mainly and it’s something followed through by teachers, parents and kids.”
Shellee Godfrey, the assistant principal of St. James School and parent of a first-grader, said the school feels “very proud and blessed” about the distinction.
“It’s nice to be validated,” she said. “We know we are doing well. It’s nice for someone on the outside to think you’ve got it together as well.”
She wrote and submitted the school’s application for the Blue Ribbon honor, a process that she said was daunting. On St. James’ application Godfrey said she highlighted the school’s emphasis on community service, stewardship and its academic achievements.
The school’s fifth- through eighth-graders volunteer more than 4,000 hours each year, she noted. They volunteer at soup kitchens, Habitat for Humanity, Kentucky Harvest, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and write letters to people in nursing homes and the military.
In addition, “at least 45 percent of our seventh graders qualify for the Duke Talent Identification Program.” Last year, 10 students received state recognition and four were recognized nationally by the Duke University program, she noted.
Also, she said, “We have the largest middle school delegation that participates in KYA (Kentucky Youth Assembly) in the state.”
Sister Friedman added that the school’s academic team “has done extremely well in competition.”
Godfrey will travel to Washington, D.C., to receive the award in November.
If the school’s students are any measure of its success — and their test scores say they are — two eighth-graders say they’d recommend the school to other kids.
Hailey Pawley said during an interview at the school, “The teachers are so nice and helpful. They will stay after class to help you. You go on field trips. It’s wonderful.”
Her classmate Cole Riney said his teachers “are really well taught and they help us learn.”
“They really express their Catholic faith through their teaching” and during community service activities, he said. “It’s a very good school.”