SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — There is no secret to earning a National Blue Ribbon Schools Program award from the U.S. Department of Education, said Lisa Parry, the principal at Arlington Elementary School.

“The key is hard work,” Parry said.

Arlington Elementary, Gettysburg Middle School and Pinedale Elementary in Rapid City are the three public schools that earned a Blue Ribbon award this year. O’Gorman Catholic high school also earned the award.

The four schools are among 325 selected from across the nation.

The National Blue Ribbon Schools Program recognizes public and private elementary, middle, and high schools based on their overall academic excellence or their progress in closing achievement gaps among student subgroups. 

Elementary students in Arlington give speeches. Photo courtesy of the Arlington School District Facebook page.

Arlington Elementary and Gettysburg Middle School were selected for their excellence in achieving South Dakota state learner standards in the 2018-2019 school year.

“We obviously pay close attention to the standards,” Parry said. But the school and students meet the standards because the focus is on overall learning and not just learning the standards, she said.

“It’s not just about sitting down and doing worksheets. It’s not just about learning math and science. It’s about developing the whole student,” Gettysburg Middle School Principal Wendy Smith said. “We try to incorporate different (methods) including hands-on activities.”

Both principals said teachers and staff are creative in their approaches to teaching.

Gettysburg added college prep math to the curriculum several years ago, Smith said. “The kids didn’t like it at first but we’ve seen the results,” Smith said.

Parry said in the Arlington elementary the three basics of are knowing what students are supposed to learn by each grade level, creating instruction to meet all sorts of needs and varieties of learning and the “relentless pursuit” of making sure kids learn what is needed.

“I think as educators, meeting kids where they are at, it’s challenging,” Parry said.

“Every group of kids brings a whole different set of challenges,” Smith said.

Different challenges can mean different goals to reach, Smith said.

If all students were the same, “Our jobs as educators would be a lot easier,” Smith said.

A post from the Gettysburg School District Facebook page.

The two principals praised the work of their teachers and staff.

Parry said the local school board understands the importance of paraprofessionals. The school may have one teacher for every 20 students but when paraprofessionals and technical assistants are added, the ratio can be 1 to 6 students, she said.

“Our staff does a great job of working as a team,” Smith said.

Another piece to the educational team is the parental and community support, Smith and Parry said.

“It all starts with great support from the community and the parents,” Smith said. Parents and the community know the priority is “getting kids into school,” she said.

Parry said the support in and out of school has created a culture where teachers push themselves to make sure students learn. “There are times when you may want to throw your hands up (and give up),” Parry said. But no one does, she said. “That isn’t the culture here,” Parry said.