Our Lady of the Lake a Blue Ribbon School
Our Lady of the Lake Elementary School in Mandeville has been named a 2014 National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education, the highest national honor an American school can receive.
The selection, announced Sept. 30, places Our Lady of the Lake into an elite group of 336 schools – and one of only six in Louisiana – to receive the special honor in 2014.
“We have a steadfast commitment to excellence at Our Lady of the Lake,” said Frank Smith, school principal since 2005. “It is wonderful to be recognized and it is a fitting tribute to our outstanding faculty, staff, parents and students to receive this great honor.”
“OLL has an unwavering commitment to student success,” Smith added. "Our team at OLL has been committed to continuous improvement in curriculum and instruction in every classroom, every day.”
This year marks the second time Our Lady of the Lake has received the prestigious accolade. It was first named a Blue Ribbon School in 2004.
Smith shared the good news at a Sept. 30 assembly of the entire student body in the school gym. Each student received a garland of blue beads before second-lining out of the gym behind their Cardinal mascot to find an end-of-the-school-day treat of blue popsicles.
Our Lady of the Lake, founded in 1890, currently enrolls 770 students in programs ranging from pre-K3 through seventh grade, and also offers a Mothers’ Day Out for 2-year-olds.
Refuses to rest on laurels
“I think that one of the great things here is that we're always acting to improve. That's what makes us a great, great school,” Smith said, pointing to his faculty's "overwhelming commitment to the students" through its campus-wide practice of differentiated instruction – or exposing students to various teaching approaches in an effort to encompass all learning styles.
To achieve this, Smith hired a full-time curriculum coordinator, before this position became a standard offering at elementary schools, to create a grade-by-grade syllabus listing benchmarks and best classroom practices. The curriculum coordinator, in conjunction with teachers, monitors each student’s progress as she or she progresses to the next grade level, to prevent vital skills from falling through the cracks or, conversely, to prevent a student from wasting classroom time learning skills he or she has already mastered.
“Once a student is finished with a given lesson, he or she will not do extra work, but more enriching work – maybe an extension to the project, instead of just giving him another worksheet,” Smith said, noting that Our Lady of the Lake also brings in speakers and college professors to teach faculty how to conduct the differentiated instruction by presenting classroom scenarios and observing teachers in action in the trenches.
"We invest so much time in trying to teach to the individual needs of the students," Smith said, pointing to Our Lady of the Lake’s inclusion of a gifted program as well as a resource program for students who need more academic help. A new electivewas launched this school year for those students with an interest in art that extends beyond the school’s regular art classes. A theater arts program for students in grades kindergarten attracts audiences of 500-plus at “Broadway-style” productions, Smith said.
"The neat thing about (theater arts) is the kids who might struggle in the classroom find that they excel elsewhere – they might be great at public speaking,” Smith said. “I'm a firm believer in if a kid can be successful in one area, he or she can find the confidence and be successful in another area.
"I think in education, people are finally beginning to see that kids learn differently. That's huge!” Smith said. “(Schools) need to know that kids learn differently; then they can have the confidence to go on to be successful in high school and college.”
The special attention is producing results. Last year, Our Lady of the Lake alumni were among the top graduates at Jesuit, St. Paul's and Archbishop Hannan high schools. The elementary school’s grads are among those local high school juniors who have earned a perfect score on the ACT, and its students consistently score in top 15 percent in every elementary grade level that is tested, Smith said.
Strides in technology include a 1:1 program, launched in 2007, that puts a MacBook Pro laptop into the hands of every sixth and seventh grader, and a high-school caliber science lab equipped with gas and electric. Beginning at age 3, Our Lady of the Lake students access iPad stations as part of their self-directed learning.
Models of excellence touted
The official announcement of Our Lady of the Lake’s selection as a Blue Ribbon School, by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, was streamed from Washington, D.C., onto jumbo screens in the gym.
Secretary Duncan pointed to "huge progress" in American education, with high graduation rates at all-time highs, drop-out rates down, and college enrollment up, particularly among African American and Latino students.
"We need your help to ensure that across the country we are raising the bar, closing achievement gaps and ending the opportunity gap and equipping every student with what they need to be successful,” Duncan said. “Please, share what you know! Your schools are setting high expectations for all learners, and you're setting the stage for student success in college, career and ultimately, in life."
Duncan said the Blue Ribbon program is a key way his department is able to identify and replicate educational practices that are working.
"You, the 2014 National Blue Ribbon Award winners, are absolutely a national treasure,” he said. “Thank you for what you do every single day to foster curiosity, persistence and the joy of working for our nation's children."