Two Step Up For Students schools earn coveted National Blue Ribbon Schools distinction

Oct 4 2022 • By Roger Mooney

Holy Spirit Catholic School, a preK-8 school in Jacksonville with an enrollment of 219, and St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, with a student body of more than 2,000, are the only schools in Florida to earn the coveted National Blue Ribbon Schools distinction for 2022.

Both schools have students who receive education choice scholarships managed by Step Up For Students.

The National Blue Ribbon Schools Award was established in 1982 to recognize the best schools in the country. Private schools are recognized as “Exemplary High Performing” if students in every grade score in the top 15% in the country in the standardized Math and Reading tests.

The results were based on test scores from the 2021-22 school year, with 24 private and 273 public schools nationwide earning the distinction.

“As our country continues to recover from the pandemic, we know that our future will only be as strong as the education we provide to all of our children,” U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a press release. “Blue Ribbon Schools have gone above and beyond to keep students healthy and safe while meeting their academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs.”

Dr. John Luciano has been the Principal at Holy Spirit for 21 years. For nearly two decades he has checked to see if each grade level achieved the required score for a Blue Ribbon application to be submitted. The school came close a number of years, finally achieving the goal in 2020-21 school year.

“The standardized test scores alone was a huge accomplishment for us,” said Luciano, whose school last year had 35 students receive the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, 67 on the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options, and 6 on the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities. “And then for it to be based upon a pandemic year where we had remote learning going on for eight months, it’s pretty remarkable.”

The small enrollment also presented a challenge. Having one class for every grade, and some grades with fewer than 25 students, meant nearly every student in that grade had to score well on the standardized tests. Otherwise, the percentage would drop from only two or three low scores.

“For a small school to have standardized test scores that ranked among the highest in the nation, that was a huge surprise,” Luciano said. “It’s an indication that there’s solid instruction happening at every grade level.  We’re just a small neighborhood school that has had a solid academic program in place for many years.”

Holy Spirit is the first school in the Diocese of St. Augustine to receive this award in the last 11 years.

St. Thomas Aquinas, which had 310 students on the FES-EO last year, is known for being among the best in the nation athletically, especially when it comes to football. That’s why being designated a National Blue Ribbon school is a big accomplishment for Aquinas Principal Denise Aloma.

“We’re well known for our athletics, but I think it’s additionally rewarding to know that there is a national recognition of our academic focus,” she said.

In addition to a student body that performed well on the tests, Aloma said the distinction also shines a light on who she called the “unsung heroes of education – the teachers.”

“You don’t have a great school without committed, dedicated professionals,” Aloma said. “So, it’s another platform for me to say kudos to our students who work hard, but these achievements would never be on the platform or the national level if I did not have the committed amazing educators that we have at this school.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at [email protected].

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Roger Mooney