Now the hallways seem smaller than they did when he was a student, Washington Auxiliary Bishop Barry Knestout said as he visited his alma mater, St. Pius X Regional School in Bowie, Maryland, on Sept. 28.

After stopping by kindergarten and fifth grade classrooms, he addressed an all-school assembly in St. Pius X Church, noting that he had many special memories of his time at the school, receiving First Communion there in the church, participating in the Scouts, and graduating in 1976.

“Now I have another great memory of this place,” he said smiling, moments after the school’s principal, Janet Schrom, made the surprise announcement that the U.S. Department of Education had named St. Pius X Regional School as a National Blue Ribbon School.

That announcement caused the 555 students from pre-kindergarten through the eighth grade filling the pews with their teachers to erupt in long, sustained cheers and applause. Their principal announced that St. Pius X is the first Catholic elementary school in Prince George’s County to receive that national honor.

“You’re a shining star in the archdiocese, and we’re very proud of you,” said William Ryan, the superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Washington, who noted that the school was one of only 50 private schools nationwide to be designated as a National Blue Ribbon School in 2016.

This year, four Catholic elementary schools in the Archdiocese of Washington received that honor: St. Pius X; St. Patrick School in Rockville; and Our Lady of Victory School and Holy Trinity School in Washington.

The mood at St. Pius X Church was anything but blue, as students applauded their own hard work, and offered rounds of applause for their parents, teachers, school staff and parish priests, and gave a long standing ovation to Robert Love, who retired as principal there in 2015 after leading the school for 16 years.

Teachers handed out blue plastic hard hats that the children donned before posing for a group picture for a photographer standing on a ladder in the choir loft.

“Let these hard hats remind you of all your hard work. This is just the beginning,” said Schrom, who said the school community had achieved the goal of being designated as a National Blue Ribbon School, and now they could reach even higher and work toward new goals.

In addition to the bishop, superintendent and the retired principal, Schrom –wearing a blue dress with her fingernails painted blue – was joined at the front of the church by her vice principal, Vicky McCann, also wearing a blue dress; and three sets of blue balloons floated behind the chairs where the row of special guests were seated, including the four Bowie pastors whose parishes sponsor the regional school: Father Michael Jones, the pastor of St. Pius X Parish and the school’s pastoral administrator; Msgr. Charles Parry, the pastor of Sacred Heart Parish; Father John Barry, the pastor of St. Edward the Confessor Parish and an alumnus of the school;  and Father Larry Young, the pastor of Ascension Parish.

The pastors and parochial vicars from those parishes teach religion classes at St. Pius X Regional School every week.

“It’s been fun to give back,” said Father Barry, who attended St. Pius from the fourth through eighth grades in the 1970s and has been teaching classes there for the past eight years. This year, he’s teaching religion classes to pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students and fourth graders.

A bulletin board has a display honoring Bishop Knestout, Father Barry and several other local priests and seminarians who attended the school.

Msgr. Parry, who has been teaching religion classes at St. Pius X for the past 17 years, is now reading through the Acts of the Apostles with seventh graders and teaching third graders about the life of St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests.

“It’s a foundation, hopefully that will grow the rest of their lives,” Sacred Heart’s pastor said, adding that the goal “is to help children develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ in the Church, that enriches everyone’s life.”

The priest said a special blessing for him is “to watch them grow up, and grow into their own.” As a group of sixth graders arrived in church before the assembly, one boy high-fived Msgr. Parry, who said later, “I know them, I know them all by name.”

The parish school at St. Pius X was founded in 1962 and became a regional school in 1990. In 2012, Father Jones helped lead the celebration of the 50th anniversary for the school and parish. “It embodies everything a pastor would hope a Catholic school would be,” he said, noting how the parish priests are involved not only in teaching classes, but in celebrating monthly all-school Masses and Masses for individual grades.

St. Pius X Regional School is coordinating its service projects and outreach to emulate the example of a different saint each month. For September, the school followed the example of the newly canonized St. Teresa of Calcutta, as children collected more than $600 to help Catholic schools in Louisiana affected by the recent floods there.

In an interview before the assembly, Schrom said she hopes St. Pius X students will graduate with strong self confidence and faith, “knowing they make a difference in the world.”

Patricia Reimer, the president of the school board at St. Pius X who also serves as the president of the archdiocese’s Board of Education, noted that parent volunteers there serve in the science labs, in the library and front office, and at school Masses. She said Bowie is a city with a small-town feel, and St. Pius X School reflects that spirit.

The school’s principal knows all about its small-town approach. Her family moved across the street when she was 12, and she has been an administrator and taught at St. Pius X for the past 38 years. Her two daughters graduated from St. Pius X, and now her two young twin grandsons are there. Schrom is in her second year as principal, and earlier taught second grade, sixth grade reading and English, and was a guidance counselor and vice principal there

She noted that between 350 and 400 parents and children participated in St. Pius X School’s recent back to school barbecue in the parking lot behind the church, with the dads cooking hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill, and other parents bringing side dishes. On Halloween, parents decorate their cars, park them at the school and give out candy to students from the trunks of the cars, as a safe and family friendly holiday alternative. During the year, St. Pius X also offers two “Kids Night Out” events, where parents drop of their children for three hours on a Friday evening, where students can enjoy pizza, bingo or movies, while their parents also have a night out.

In another personal touch, St. Pius X school board members divide up the names of new school families and keep in regular contact with them.

“It’s a good fit for my family and for our kids,” said Reimer, whose son is in the seventh grade and whose daughter is a sixth grader there. She said it was a great honor for their school to receive national recognition for excellence, and she added that she appreciates the school’s strong Catholic identity. When the parish hosts homeless people for the community Warm Nights program, school children draw placemats for them and write them notes of welcome.

“I like the fact that what we teach them (about their faith) is reinforced at school,” she said. “I think it’s important our kids learn you need to serve other people and help other people.”

St. Pius X Regional School has also emphasized technology in learning, with eighth graders all having their own iPads, and with the school’s other students utilizing iPads or Chromebooks in their studies. Most of the middle school students’ books are now e-books that they can study at school or at home. Schrom said that with this technology, St. Pius X students can now take a virtual walk along the Oregon Trail or a virtual tour of Anne Frank’s home.

“It’s making sure kids are prepared when they go out in the world,” and helping them be prepared to tackle anything, the principal said.

After the Blue Ribbon announcement, the school’s retired principal Robert Love summarized the achievement as “a community of people working together and caring about each other.”

That point was echoed by eighth grader Hannah Wicklein, who has attended St. Pius X since she was in pre-kindergarten. “What I love about St. Pius X, is every student and faculty member cares about you and wants you to succeed in life,” she said.

Wicklein, who dreams of being a veterinarian some day, said the Blue Ribbon honor, which followed a lot of hard work by the students symbolized by the blue hard hats, “makes me feel very proud of the school. I feel I did them proud. I feel I gave something to the school, for all they gave me.”

When he visited the kindergarten classroom there, Bishop Knestout was greeted by teacher Jean Allman, who said, “Welcome home.” Later when visiting the fifth graders, he talked to students about their families and noted that he grew up in a family of nine children. “Some of you are from small families, others are from larger families,” the bishop said. “We’re all part of a larger family of faith. You’re also part of a school family.”

Bishop Knestout offered them a blessing before heading off to the assembly, and as he walked to the church, which is fittingly connected to the school by a hallway, he said his education at St. Pius X School “gave a foundation for me, in being drawn to serving in the Church.”

Moments later, the bishop spoke at the school assembly about his special memories there, and his new memory of being with them as they learned of the Blue Ribbon award. Bishop Knestout spoke to them about a lesson he had learned there, that more than tests or homework, the school had offered him a foundation for life.

“It’s a unique opportunity to have a Catholic education, and a great foundation for what you’ll be doing in your life,” the bishop said.