Students at Pender Public Schools met last Thursday, Sept. 28, in the Heese Event Center for an afternoon assembly they won’t soon forget.
Superintendent Jason Dolliver told the group of staff and children in grades K-12 about something called a U.S. Department of Education National Blue Ribbon School.
Since 1982, only 18 schools in Nebraska had earned the award. Only about 350 of 140,000 schools in the nation would be receiving that level of recognition this year.
And then he told them that the district had applied for it.
“Why not?” Dolliver asked them.
Before long, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was talking on a big screen to the students, about to share a list of 342 schools that would be honored for their overall academic performance or progress in closing achievement gaps among student subgroups.
State by state, starting with Alaska, the list went by and intensity built as it neared Nebraska.
The room erupted as “Pender Elementary School” was on the list, one of four in the state to make it for 2017. The others are Calvert Elementary in Auburn and Omaha schools Dundee Elementary School and Paddock Road Elementary School.
Pender was nominated by the Nebraska Department of Education for its exemplary scores on NeSa assessments during the 2015-16 school year in grades 3-6.
“It’s a reflection of our kids and parents,” elementary principal Kelly Ballinger, who worked effortlessly to complete the nomination process with help from other staff, said.
“We have a fabulous staff, and their relationship with our kids is amazing. I think we’re really supported by our board of education, and I think our growing and vibrant community values what we do here.”
Superintendent Jason Dolliver told the students before the announcement that he already knew they are special.
“But it’s validation,” Dolliver said. “You always wonder how you stack up. To me, it’s validation for all of the hard work and effort we all put in — students, staff and parents.”
Assessments have become an important way that school districts are measured, and at Pender Dolliver said it’s important that target that is being aimed for includes every last student.
“We had one class that exceeded proficiency in math for every single student. That’s unheard of, if you ask me,” Dolliver said.
One thing the status recognizes is that there is a lot going right in the district, from curriculum and staff to students and their parental support.
“This award validated exactly how I already felt,” Kindergarten teacher Amy Bargholz said. “I have always known that I am part of an excellent school district and community that is doing great things for our students. Every staff member works hard to create an environment that encourages and supports success for all our students.”
Longtime Pender teacher Dayleen Liakos echoed the idea that it’s good to be noticed for doing things the right way.
“Being a Blue Ribbon School does validate all the hard work and effort teachers and students of Pender Public Schools have assimilated into our school days since the inception of state testing,” Liakos said.
Now in its 35th year, the National Blue Ribbon Schools Program has bestowed recognition on more than 8,500 schools in that time. On Nov. 6-7, the Secretary and the Department of Education will celebrate with the honorees at an awards ceremony in Washington, D.C.
All schools are honored in one of two performance categories, based on all student scores, subgroup student scores and graduation rates.
Pender qualified as an “Exemplary High Performing School,” which are among their state’s highest performing schools as measured by state assessments or nationally normed tests.
It is possible to view the application sent in by Pender Public Schools by visiting www.ed.gov/nationalblueribbonschools.
The list of what are now 22 Nebraska schools to earn the honor can be found there. Pender neighbors Bancroft-Rosalie and Wakefield were among past schools to secure the honor.
“The students see this award as recognition of their hard work. This is something they would like to see happen again and again. This award is just more proof that ‘It’s a great day to be a Pendragon!’” said Pender teacher Tara Miller.