When St. Joseph School in Fayetteville landed its first National Blue Ribbon School designation in 2014, principal Jason Pohlmeier had just taken over the reins of the school. Having been around for the application process, the new head administrator set his sights on repeating the award after the six-year window that follows each presentation.
“[Blue Ribbon status] was a standard to set for myself to make sure that I did my part to help the school maintain the high standards that it had set for itself. It gave me big shoes to fill,” he said.
“The following year, the assistant principal left and the new assistant principal and I took it upon ourselves that we’re going to seek to repeat. We had five years to maintain that standard; it wasn’t just that we’ve got to keep up the standard for a couple of months and then we’ll get it again. We had to set a high bar to maintain that standard.”
Perhaps owing to divine intervention, the school made good on the principal’s audacious goal. In October, St. Joseph School became the first Arkansas non-public school in the history of the award to repeat its designation. St. Joseph School was one of 367 schools nationwide so designated in 2020, and one of just five Arkansas schools to receive Blue Ribbon School status.
“This is a great day to be a Panther!” exclaimed Congressman Steve Womack, who was in person at the school for an Oct. 16 celebration cast over Zoom. “Think about this: How many schools have never, ever received the Blue Ribbon award? Far more than those that have. Most schools never get to be a Blue Ribbon school.
“You know something about excellence. This school has already been recognized before for excellence. And here we are again.”
Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan also lent his congratulatory remarks during the Zoom call, commending faculty and students alike.
“I’d like to congratulate the students of St Joseph’s for performing at such a high level and making significant improvement in their academic achievements,” he said. “[To the faculty] the standards your school had to achieve to earn this designation were high and working through the Blue Ribbon process indicates to me that you are clearly focused on the one thing that is most important: What is best for the children who attend St. Joseph’s? There is no greater goal for any school than that.”
The National Blue Ribbon School award is presented by the U.S. Department of Education. Launched in 1982, it recognizes the best of the best in American elementary, middle and secondary schools. Awarded schools hold the designation for six years at which time they may reapply for Blue Ribbon status. To date, almost 10,000 awards have been made to more than 9,000 schools coast to coast.
Blue Ribbon School honorees in 2020 also included Bernice Young Elementary School in Springdale; Crawford Elementary School in Russellville; Eudora Elementary School in Eudora; and Jefferson Elementary School in Little Rock.
Pohlmeier said as one of the smaller honored schools, the designation gives St. Joseph additional credence for the quality of its educational programs.
“It’s an opportunity for us to be recognized on a national level, so that’s something that stands out as being very important for us,” he said. “We believe that Catholic education is extremely important and accomplishes lots of great things. To be able to be recognized at the highest level is really meaningful and as a Catholic school being recognized by the U.S. Department of Education is really significant.”
“For our teachers, it speaks to the point of sustained excellence. It’s definitely a feather in their caps of the quality education that they’re providing, because they’re the ones in the classrooms with the kids every day accomplishing those things. I think it is really meaningful right now with everything that’s going on with COVID. Teachers are being asked to do things they’ve never done before, doing more work and harder work than they probably have ever done. So, for our teachers, this is a really good validation.”
There are 26 Catholic elementary and secondary schools in Arkansas, including five high schools, Subiaco Academy in Subiaco, St. Joseph High School in Conway, Ozark Catholic Academy in Springdale and Catholic High School and Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock. Founded in 1851, Mount St. Mary holds the additional distinction of being the oldest educational institution in the state.
In recent years, parochial school enrollment has stagnated, resulting in the closure of several long-standing schools, most recently St. Edward School in downtown Little Rock. Pohlmeier said Blue Ribbon status thus plays a practical role in the St. Joseph School environment, from marketing to inspiring teachers to introduce innovation and creativity into the classroom.
“Every [prospective] family that comes in to visit our school comes in having done their homework in different ways. Occasionally, we get someone who works in education and knows what Blue Ribbon is. It speaks for itself,” he said.
“The majority of people don’t know what it is until I share it with them. It’s significant, because when those families come in, they’re trying to make a decision for the education of their child. They want to get that decision right no matter what and [the designation] certainly speaks as a measure of the quality of the school that they’re getting.”
“I want you to know how very, very proud I am of you today,” said Bishop Anthony B. Taylor during the Zoom call to the rapt attention of students in classrooms and tuning in from home. “I recognize that you really have to work really hard in your studies. And I find that a lot of times, somebody feels like they’re really good in math or they’re really good in reading, but this award says that you all are in the top 15 percent in both.”
“Your school has been a very solid school all along. And that makes me so proud of you and your teachers. You all are gaining a really solid foundation for the future.”
Photo credit: Jason Pohlmeier. Left to right: Maria Dumond, Jacob Mathias, Emily Orlicek, Clare Pohlmeier in Mrs. Erin Wragg’s 7th grade science class.