For Our Lady of Mercy School in Potomac, Maryland, the title “Blue Ribbon Award winner” is not new – in fact, the school has received the recognition three times throughout the school’s history – in 1998, in 2009 and again in 2020.

“I can’t say I was really surprised,” said Doreen Engel, who began serving as interim principal at Our Lady of Mercy School for the 2020-21 school year. “I have been in many Catholic Schools across America and I knew this was one of the best. How exciting to have that verified by the National Blue Ribbon program.”

Engel previously served as the director of special education for the Catholic Schools Office of the Archdiocese of Washington and most recently returned to the area after spending eight years in Rhode Island working in Catholic schools and caring for her father, who died this spring.

Only 107 schools in the United States have received the National Blue Ribbon Award recognition three times – and Our Lady of Mercy School is the only school in the state of Maryland to do so.

Pride the lion, the mascot for Our Lady of Mercy School in Potomac, Maryland, wears a blue face mask and a blue ribbon as he joins some Mercy students after school on Sept. 24, 2020, on the day when  the U.S. Department of Education announced that Our Lady of Mercy is a National Blue Ribbon School for this year. (Archdiocese of Washington photo/Gaillard Stohlman)

“We absolutely must thank the previous principal, Debbie Thomas,” Engel said.

Debbie Thomas, now the principal at St. Louis School in Clarksville, Maryland, was the principal at Our Lady of Mercy School for the past five years. She said that she was “so proud and so happy” for the community at Our Lady of Mercy School for receiving their third Blue Ribbon Award.

“There’s a tremendous sense of community (at Mercy) and that community is directly tied to a very strong Catholic identity. They’re living the Gospel message of really caring for each other, loving each other and taking care of each other,” Thomas said. “(The Blue Ribbon Award) reflects the effort of all of their teachers and all of the staff working as one community, and I am so proud and so happy for them.”

Founded in 1961, Our Lady of Mercy School has worked to provide an individualized education to students for the past six decades. As one of the first schools in the country to introduce an inclusion program for students with learning, developmental or intellectual disabilities, Our Lady of Mercy School continues to work with each student to provide for their learning needs. The school also has an extension program for students who might need advanced individualized lessons in certain subjects.

“What is just truly remarkable is their ability to individualize instruction,” Thomas said. “They truly help each child achieve their greatest potential in mind, body and spirit.”

Pre-kindergarten students line up outside Our Lady of Mercy School on a recent school day. (Photo courtesy of Our Lady of Mercy School)

Christine Green, assistant principal at Our Lady of Mercy School who also teaches the fifth grade and a course in leadership for seventh and eighth graders, has been teaching at Our Lady of Mercy School for the past 33 years. She has seen the school receive each of their three National Blue Ribbon School awards. Green said the school’s constant dedication to collaboration and professional development has been constant throughout the years.

“We’re at the forefront and preparing students to be 21st century leaders,” Green said. “It’s been pretty remarkable that we continue to reach our goals and benchmarks and the administration has provided opportunities for both faculty growth and addressing student need.”

She said that for her “being able to do daily work in a faith-based environment,” was just one of the most meaningful parts of being a member of the Our Lady of Mercy School community.

“There’s an ongoing awareness to guide students in mind, body and spirit,” Green said. “And we’re keenly aware of the importance of joyful learning and student engagement so that academic excellence is achieved.”

First graders play during recess on a recent school day at Our Lady of Mercy in Potomac. (Courtesy photo)

Leo Gutierrez, the father of two Our Lady of Mercy School boys, Leo, who graduated last year, and Alex, who is in the eighth grade, said his family has had a wonderful experience at the school since each of his sons started there in kindergarten.

“We absolutely love Mercy,” Leo Gutierrez said. “It’s been a great experience since day one… The community there, the entire faculty is welcoming and very committed to the children. It’s a school that really practices including everyone and making an effort both in class and socially outside of the classroom to really include all.”

In addition to the community and the academics, Gutierrez praised the school’s inclusion program and the commitment of the school’s administration, teachers and faculty.

In a photo from 2015, students participate in a classroom exercise at Our Lady of Mercy School in Potomac, Maryland. (CS file photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

Sept. 24, the day of the Department of Education’s announcement of the National Blue Ribbon Award winners, was also the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy, noted Father William Byrne, the pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Parish.

“It’s so powerful and cool that would be the day that the announcement would come that we would be awarded for the third time,” Father Byrne said. “Our Lady’s school, we must be making her happy.”

The announcement, he added, did not come as a surprise.

“I was overjoyed but not surprised because I know what an excellent program we have here,” Father Byrne said. “Our faculty and administration are at the tops, bar none. They are committed Catholic educators.”

Recognizing the significance of a third award, Father Byrne said this speaks to the school’s long history.

“This is a consistent history of excellence and it speaks to the wonderful administration and faculty that we’ve had throughout the years,” he said.

Both Engel and Father Byrne look forward to celebrating with the entire Our Lady of Mercy School community at various times throughout the coming weeks.

“I just want to emphasize how proud I am of our faculty and what an excellent job they do, and I want to say that I join the students in celebrating that they have a wonderful gift,” Father Byrne said.

Second grade teacher Lauren Wyble reads to students at Our Lady of Mercy School. (Courtesy photo)

Our Lady of Mercy began the 2020-2021 school year in a hybrid method – with some students learning in-person on the school's campus and others learning through the school’s distance-learning program. Engel said she hopes that throughout this year she can work with the other teachers and faculty members “to keep children safe, to deliver a wonderful education, to give them hope and let them see that we are a people of hope as Catholics.”

“This is a difficult time for everyone, but there is joy in every day. God is with us,” the interim principal said. “We can find our way through this. Learning is critical -- that is why my teachers are in the building, that is why we built a robust distance learning program, that is why parents are sending their children to school either in person or at a distance. This is a particularly important time to grow close to God.”

Our Lady of Mercy fifth graders work in class. The school began the 2020-21 year with a hybrid model, with some students attending classes in-person and others joining them through distance learning. (Photo courtesy of Our Lady of Mercy School)