Salem and Calico Rock schools were called to the stage on Tuesday, Nov. 16, when National Blue Ribbon School awards were handed out in Washington D.C., recognizing the best schools in the United States.
"To have two schools in our local co-op recognized as the best of the best, was pretty amazing," said Salem Elementary Principal, Corey Johnson.
Johnson, Superintendent Ken Rich and fifth grade teacher Lynn Maguffee represented Salem at the nation's capitol.
Calico Rock Elementary Principal Debbie Moore and Counselor Mary Beth Wyatt represented Calico Rock.
"It was a little intimidating to little country girl, me, who grew up in Viola, to be in Washington D.C.," Moore admitted.
But, as members of the 314 winning schools broke into groups to discuss issues they have faced and how they have dealt with them, Moore relaxed and contributed.
"I realized I had ideas to share," said Moore. "While I come from a little, small school, we have a lot of good ideas on how to get our students to achieve and I saw people from other schools scribbling notes, just like I was."
The Arkansas Department of Education nominated Salem and Calico Rock for the Blue Ribbon award because they have closed the achievement gap among students for three straight years and their students have records of high achievement.
The schools then went through an application process, which included sharing information about the school and community, what approaches they took to increase student achievement and the U.S. Department of Education was given access to school data bases.
Arkansas schools at Kingston and Jacksonville were also chosen as Blue Ribbon winners.
"At the awards banquet, the Arkansas delegation was at the same table with winners from California," said Johnson. "They thought it was unusual that two schools from the same rural area were chosen."
Johnson and Moore both said the most rewarding aspects of their three days in Washington were sessions where educators from schools all over the country would exchange ideas and discuss ways to keep improving their schools.
When he addressed them, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan challenged the winners, saying successful schools have an obligation to go out and help make other schools better.
"He said, 'be prepared for your phone to ring,'" said Johnson. "He meant other schools may want to talk to us or come in to see what our staff does to help our students succeed. We are, certainly, willing to share with others."
Moore said the fact two winners came from the same area shows what a good regional service co-operative can do.
"I attribute a lot of our success to the wonderful professional development our teachers and administrators have received through the regional co-op in Melbourne," said Moore.
When the principals returned to their schools on Thursday, Nov. 18, they both took the Blue Ribbon award around to classrooms to show it off to students and staff.
"I congratulated the kids and told them how proud I was of them," said Johnson. "They and Mr. (Dave) Turnbough (the principal Johnson replaced this year) earned the award."
"At my school, we are fortunate to have such great community support," said Moore. "Parents volunteer every day and everyone on our staff, from the teachers to the cooks and bus drivers, are involved in making a student's day successful."
The actual award the schools received is a framed dark blue oval containing the Department of Education seal with a gold plaque mounted underneath. The schools were also given banners to fly proclaiming themselves a "Nationally Recognized Blue Ribbon School 2010."
Moore and Johnson have discussed throwing Blue Ribbon celebrations at their schools, hopefully with federal and state officials joining in.
In the meantime, it is back to reality.
"It was quite an honor, quite an experience," Moore said, describing the trip to Washington. "But, right now, I'm trying to catch up on what happened when I was gone and deal with the things that have piled up on my desk."
Besides growing up in Viola, Moore taught at Viola for 13 years before becoming elementary principal in Calico Rock, where she is now in her fifteenth year.
Johnson is in his first year as principal after eight years as a teacher at Salem Elementary.