Proud Partners -- Two students from Our Lady of Good Counsel School, give the thumbs-up upon learning that their school was presented with the National Blue Ribbon honor. Photo courtesy of Our Lady of Good Counsel School
Proud Partners -- Two students from Our Lady of Good Counsel School, give the thumbs-up upon learning that their school was presented with the National Blue Ribbon honor. Photo courtesy of Our Lady of Good Counsel School

By Christina Leslie | Staff Writer

It’s not often that a governmental press conference evokes sheer joy from its listeners, but a video message delivered Sept. 29 by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan caused two Catholic elementary schools in the Diocese of Trenton to break out into spontaneous cheers and applause.

Holy Cross School, Rumson, and Our Lady of Good Counsel School, Moorestown, were named 2015 Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence by the United States Department of Education and the Council for American Private Education. This brings to six the number of schools in the Diocese to receive this designation of excellence in academics in recent years. The Catholic schools are two of only 50 private schools in the nation, six of them from New Jersey, who have been so honored this year.

Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., expressed his joy at the schools’ public recognition of excellence in education, saying it “reinforces the truth that academic excellence is a foundation of our Catholic schools, even as we work to form our children in the faith and challenge them to live it each day.”

He continued, “We have said, ‘Catholic schools have it all,’ and this is yet another example of just how true that statement is. I congratulate the faculty, parents and students of these two new Blue Ribbon schools, and encourage them to continue the wonderful work that they are doing in God’s name.”

In the Sept. 29 video message to the 335 winning schools nationwide, Duncan declared, “This honor recognizes your students’ accomplishments and the hard work and dedication that went into their success. Your journey has taught you collaboration, intentional instruction and strong relationships in school and with your community. You represent excellence - in vision, in implementation and in results - and we want to learn as much as we can from you.”

The nine public and six private schools in New Jersey honored this year were chosen for the “exemplary high performing” category, which weighs reading and math test scores, high school graduation rates and the performance of subgroups of students, such as those who are economically disadvantaged.

History of Excellence

JoAnn Tier, diocesan moderator for the Office of Catholic Education and superintendent of Catholic Schools, expressed “excitement and pride,” about the award, which she described as “truly a community effort.

“This recognition affirms the consistent focused work, creativity and innovative learning experiences that reflect 21st century learning standards in our Catholic schools,” Tier noted. “Congratulations are extended to Mr. Bill Belluzzi, principal of Holy Cross School, and Dr. Frank McAneny, principal of Our Lady of Good Counsel School, for their vision in setting high standards; to the faculty for investing in the success of students and for creating an environment in which every child can learn and grow; to parents for guiding and motivating their children to succeed, and, to the larger school community for supporting Catholic education.”

The National Blue Ribbon School program began 33 years ago. Since then, the federal Department of Education has recognized more than 8,000 schools. The group of 335 Blue Ribbon Award winning schools will be recognized at an awards ceremony Nov. 9-10 in Washington.

Holy Cross Family Rejoices

Holy Cross principal William J. Belluzzi wanted the Rumson Catholic school’s entire faculty and 417-student body to be present for the video announcement of the Blue Ribbon win. The group assembled in the gym and “broke into spontaneous applause when Holy Cross School came across the screen,” he reported.

Quick to deflect praise from himself for the accomplishment, he said, “Our teachers have been very excited. I have tried to emphasize that this special acknowledgement is really due to their very hard work over the years and across all grade levels. They are an excellent of group of educators.”

Belluzzi also congratulated the student body for the win. “I emphasized that it was their diligence and hard work in learning and demonstrating so well what their teachers taught them,” he noted. His press release about the win noted the students achieved scores on their annual standardized testing in the top 15 percent nationally.

Though Holy Cross’ 30-page National Blue Ribbon Award application is filled with percentages, ratios and test scores, Belluzzi believes a number of factors that cannot be quantified truly reflect the value of the Catholic school. He revealed, “Parent surveys consistently rank ‘a family atmosphere’ as one of the most unique and important features of the school.”  He noted that with the support of the pastor, Father Michael Manning; parish staff; PTA; school board and parents, a collaboration exists “to provide the students with the tools necessary to pursue personal goals and receive the foundation to succeed spiritually, academically and socially.”

All classrooms are equipped with interactive whiteboards or projection units, there is a computer each child uses in all classes for grades 5 -8, and math and science classes utilize a program of digital techbook instruction. A “buddy program” links students in kindergarten and first grade with the oldest students in grades 7 and 8. But most importantly, Belluzzi maintained, “being a community of faith with many opportunities to practice Catholic traditions in addition to religious classes.”

Father Manning agreed. “The recognition of our school for excellence is a timely reminder to celebrate what is good, [and] everyone involved with the school works tirelessly to improve it.” he said. “Many people through the years have built the quality of the school patiently and persistently and contributed to this recognition. It’s not a laurel wreath on which to rest, but an exciting encouragement to improve the school even more. With prayer as our constant companion and by dedicating all our efforts to the Lord Jesus, all those who love our school can look to the future with confidence.”

OLGC Rooted in Mission

“I made the announcement [of the Blue Ribbon award] to the school when I was notified, and there was much cheering and excitement throughout the building,” said Our Lady of Good Counsel School principal Dr. Frank X. McAneny. But word soon spread far beyond the halls of the Moorestown school. “We added the information to our outside bulletin board and took a picture with students which we placed on Facebook and had over 7,000 hits!”

The school’s mission statement to “form young minds, hearts and hands in the image of Jesus spiritually, academically, physically and socially through authentic Catholic teaching within a faith community of respect and compassion for others.” This mission is fulfilled in the use of technology projects and programs such as Edmodo and Symbaloo for student use, an increase in “bring your own device” opportunities and opening Google School accounts for the 420 students to make other platforms for learning available, McAneny noted.

Like his counterpart in Rumson, the principal was quick to credit the 420-member student body and the school’s faculty, including his predecessor, retired OLGC principal Jerry McGowan. “This was a team effort that allowed us to reflect on our strengths and to determine what we wanted to do to continue to be a school of excellence in the future,” McAneny said. “By maintaining the blending of the traditional with 21st century needs, we will accomplish our mission to prepare students to fulfill their responsibilities as contributing and responsible adults in our society.”

Father Damian McElroy, pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, regards the award as being in "recognition of what we have known for generations."

"Our beloved school is a treasure, which excels in academics and faith life," he said. "I’m very proud of the faculty, students, staff and all our many supporters and volunteers who have contributed to our success over many years."

Father McElroy noted that the school intends to build upon this recognition and continue to provide a rich catholic education for the children of today and the children of tomorrow.

Holy Cross and Our Lady of Good Counsel Schools are the fifth and sixth in the Diocese to be awarded the national honor in recent years. In 2010, St. Ann School, Lawrenceville, earned a Blue Ribbon designation, while St. Paul School, Princeton, and St. Leo the Great School, Lincroft both were named winners in 2012. St. Gregory the Great Academy, Hamilton Square, was recognized in 2014.

To view the winning National Blue Ribbon School applications for Holy Cross and Our Lady of Good Counsel schools, see nationalblueribbonschools.ed.gov/.