Seven Philly-area schools honored with Blue Ribbon awards

Kids, wearing masks, are surrounded by confetti outside during a ceremony

Students at Penn Alexander celebrate their school being named a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Story updated at 5:05 p.m.

Seven schools in the Philadelphia region have been named Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education, including two within the School District of Philadelphia.

The Penn Alexander School in West Philadelphia and Girard Academic Music Program in South Philadelphia both earned the prestigious distinction. It was the second distinction for Penn Alexander, which was also named Blue Ribbon School in 2016.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona announced the winners Tuesday.

William Hite gestures at a podium with a blue ribbon balloon display to his left
Philadelphia schools Superintendent William Hite congratulates students and staff at Penn Alexander school after it was named a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Established in 1982, the Blue Ribbon awards go to schools that are extraordinarily high performing or have made significant strides in closing the achievement gap. Schools are eligible for the honor every five years. Nationally, 325 were chosen in 2021, with 13 in Pennsylvania, 9 in New Jersey, and 3 in Delaware.

At a celebration on the Penn Alexander athletic field Tuesday morning, Superintendent William Hite said the distinction is particularly impressive after the coronavirus pandemic upended the 2020-2021 school year.

“During any year, earning a Blue Ribbon recognition is commendable, but I think it goes without saying just how amazing it is for a school to earn this award during a year like the one we’ve all gone through,” Hite said. “This honor shows just how resilient and dedicated everyone here is and was and continues to be.”

The event was the first time the entire school came together in person since COVID-19 shifted instruction online. Students sat cross-legged in the grass and cheered as guests including Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney praised the school community. Afterward, teachers tossed colorful confetti into the sky.

“It’s like an uplift,” said art teacher Sarah Chavez.  “Being able to have something that’s celebratory and that is not virtual — to be able to come together as a community — just witnessing it feels like a huge relief and joy.”

From left to right: University at Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, spotlighted student Aminata Coulibaly, and School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite
Guests of honor include (from left) University at Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, spotlighted student Aminata Coulibaly, and School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite. Emma Lee/WHYY)

Sixth-grader Maha Abashera was excited to celebrate her school.

“You just get to be free at [Penn Alexander] and that’s what I really like about the community,” she said. “All the teachers want us to be happy and they encourage you to do really big things.” In her case, that means starting a podcast focused on self-care and mental health, with the support of her fifth-grade math teacher.

Penn Alexander — where most students are people of color and a quarter of the student body is considered economically disadvantaged — was honored for its efforts to close the achievement gap. The K-8 neighborhood school was founded in 2001 as a partnership between the School District of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and the University of Pennsylvania, which provides some ongoing extra support.

Principal Lauren Overton said that collaboration has allowed the school to “maintain small class sizes, access robust programming, and ensure that all students have what they need to learn and grow.” But she emphasized that the work doesn’t stop with this recognition.

“I urge all of us to roll up our sleeves and continue to move forward by decreasing the opportunity gaps that exist for our students. Because we know when we design schools for the students at the margins, the community will thrive. This is our work and on the ongoing journey that we are committed to here at PAS,” Overton said.

Jim Kenney gestures at a podium with a blue ribbon balloon display to his left
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney congratulates students and staff at Penn Alexander school after it was named a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

In South Philadelphia, Girard Academic Music Program (GAMP) was honored for its overall academic excellence.

The magnet school, which serves grades 5-12, is known for its strong music program. It was one of several themed, desegregated magnet schools founded in Philadelphia in the 1970s. Students audition to land a coveted spot studying vocals or instrumentals.

Four elementary schools in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia also earned Blue Ribbon status: St. Andrew Catholic School in Newtown, St. Norbert Catholic School in Paoli, St. Mary Catholic School in Schwenksville, and St. Ignatius of Antioch School in Yardley.

“This is representative of the COVID year where we worked so hard to get the students back and we were doing synchronous learning,” said Andrew McLaughlin, the secretary for elementary education for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. “It was just such a great accomplishment to be able to achieve this during this year with all those difficulties.”

Tinicum Elementary School in Palisades School District in Bucks County rounded out the list of winners in the Philadelphia region.

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