Two Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington were recognized by the U.S. Department of Education on Sept. 24 as National Blue Ribbon Schools for 2020.

The honored schools are Our Lady of Mercy School in Potomac, Maryland, and St. Peter’s Catholic School in Olney, Maryland. This is the third time Our Lady of Mercy School has received this recognition and the second time St. Peter School has been so honored.

The two schools are among only 10 Maryland schools – four of which are non-public – to be designated as Blue Ribbon Schools this year.

Our Lady of Mercy School was previously honored as a Blue Ribbon School in 2009 and 1998. Only 107 schools in the United States have received the National Blue Ribbon Award three times – and Our Lady of Mercy School is the only school in the state of Maryland to do so.

“I can’t say I was really surprised,” interim Principal Doreen Engel said. “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. We absolutely must thank the previous principal, Debbie Thomas.”

St. Peter’s School was previously recognized in 2012.

“I am so excited and I feel overwhelmed with joy – this is such an honor for the whole community,” said Kristen Cocozzella, the second-year principal of St. Peter’s School. “I am so happy for the unwavering support of our pastor, Father (Thomas) Kalita, our teachers and staff, the eagerness and curiosity of our students and the trust and commitment of our parents.”

She also thanked her predecessor, Elizabeth Whelan, the longtime principal of St. Peter’s who retired at the end of the 2018-2019 school year. “I have to give so much credit to Liz for setting the precedent and setting so much of the groundwork for this,” Cocozzella said.

Kristen Cocozzella, principal of St. Peter’s School in Olney, and Nelson Abreu, the assistant principal, celebrate the Sept. 24 announcement that their school was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a Blue Ribbon School for 2020. This is the second time the school has been so honored. St. Peter’s School was also recognized as a Blue Ribbon School in 2012. (Photo courtesy of St. Peter’s School)

The National Blue Ribbon Schools Program –established by the U.S. Department of Education in 1982 – honors public and private elementary, middle, and high schools for their academic excellence and where students are performing at very high levels.

“I’m appreciative that the United States Department of Education recognizes nonpublic schools alongside public schools in this distinctive honor,” said Kelly Branaman, secretary for Catholic schools and superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Washington. “This allows Catholic schools across the county to demonstrate their excellence on a national level.”

This year, 367 schools across the United States were named as National Blue Ribbon Schools, including 50 non-public schools. The National Catholic Educational Association noted that of the 50 schools recognized in the private school category, Catholic schools earned 40 of the awards. The U.S. Department of Education formally will recognize the 317 public and 50 private schools at an awards ceremony at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 12 and 13, 2020. 

To be chosen, schools must go through a competitive application process and demonstrate a strong commitment to educational excellence for all students.

Because of the quarantine restrictions in place following the U.S. Department of Education, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Archdiocese of Washington guidelines, Our Lady of Mercy School and St. Peter’s School are celebrating their distinction virtually. This fall, St. Peter's is providing distance learning for its students, and Our Lady of Mercy School has adopted a blended learning model, with a combination of modified in-person learning and distance learning.

Sept. 24, the day of the announcement, is also the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy, Father William Byrne, the pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Parish, noted. “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,” he 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.”

The students at Our Lady of Mercy were all smiles as they rushed out of the school building on Thursday afternoon. They were greeted by the school’s lion mascot, Pride, complete with a mask of its own, holding a sign that read “Honk! We won the blue ribbon.” 

The school's sign was decorated with large blue balloons, and its main entrance and nearby trees were decorated with large blue ribbons.

Father Byrne and his dog, Zélie, who was also wearing a blue ribbon, greeted the parents during carpool pickup. Some cars were decorated with blue balloons or congratulatory messages that read “Thank you, Teachers!” “Congrats to Mercy, 3x Blue Ribbon award winner,” and “Roar Pride.” 

Doreen Engel, at left, the interim principal of Our Lady of Mercy School in Potomac, celebrates the school's National Blue Ribbon School designation announced Sept. 24, 2020, joined by the school's mascot, Pride the lion, and Father Bill Byrne, Mercy's pastor, and his dog Zélie. (Archdiocese of Washington photo/Gaillard Stohlman) 

Cocozzella said that St. Peter’s School “is using social media as our tool to spread the good news. This weekend, we will invite parents to come to the school, stay outdoors and decorate our outside.” She added that the school – which opened this school year with 100 percent distance learning – will celebrate with students when they return to the building.

“We are thinking maybe we can have a car parade with everyone decorating cars in blue and driving by the school or maybe we can have a car decorating contest,” she said. “We realize nothing can replace a live, in-person celebration, but we are definitely going to do our best.”

Traditionally, the U.S. Department of Education formally honors the schools with their National Blue Ribbon School awards at a conference and ceremony in Washington, D.C. Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the necessity of quarantine, a virtual celebration will be held Nov. 12 and 13.

"Congratulations to this year's National Blue Ribbon School awardees," U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in announcing the awards. “It's a privilege to recognize the extraordinary work you do to meet students' needs and prepare them for successful careers and meaningful lives.”

"It is gratifying that the U.S. Department of Education recognizes what so many parents and teachers already know, that our Catholic schools provide a great education where academic excellence and our Catholic faith thrive,” Branaman said. “We're grateful for this honor, and it will serve to inspire us as we will continue to offer our students an outstanding education.”

This year’s Blue Ribbon Awards mark a total of 49 times that Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington have been singled out for distinction by the U.S. Department of Education. A total of 36 Catholic schools in the archdiocese have received the Blue Ribbon designation, with 12 of them having been so honored multiple times, including Our Lady of Mercy with three of the honors.

Here is a listing of National Blue Ribbon Schools in the Archdiocese of Washington

Archdiocesan Catholic Schools

Our Lady of Mercy School, Potomac, Maryland (2020, 2009 and 1998)

St. Peter’s Catholic School, Olney, Maryland (2020 and 2012)

St. Joseph’s Regional Catholic School, Beltsville, Maryland (2019)

St. Raphael School, Rockville, Maryland (2019)

St. Peter School on Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C. (2019 and 2013)

Blessed Sacrament School, Washington, D.C. (2019 and 2012)

Little Flower School, Bethesda, Maryland (2008 and 2017)

St. John’s School, Hollywood, Maryland (2017)

St. Peter’s School, Waldorf, Maryland (2017)

Holy Trinity School, Washington, D.C. (2016)

Our Lady of Victory School, Washington, D.C. (2016 and 2007)

St. Patrick School, Rockville, Maryland (2016)

St. Pius X Regional School, Bowie, Maryland (2016)

Cardinal Hickey Academy, Owings, Maryland (2015)

Our Lady of Lourdes, Bethesda, Maryland (2015)

Holy Cross School, Garrett Park, Maryland (2013)

St. John the Evangelist School, Silver Spring, Maryland (2013)

Father Andrew White, SJ School, Leonardtown, Maryland (2012)

St. Jane de Chantal School, Bethesda, Maryland (2011 and 1987)

St. Bartholomew School, Bethesda, Maryland (2011)

Mary of Nazareth School, Darnestown, Maryland (2011)

St. Mary School, Rockville, Maryland (2011)

St. John the Baptist School, Silver Spring, Maryland (2010)

Holy Redeemer School, Kensington, Maryland (2009)

St. Andrew Apostle School, Silver Spring, Maryland (2007 and 1989)

St. Bernadette School, Silver Spring, Maryland (2003 and 2000)

St. Camillus Catholic School, Silver Spring, Maryland (now St. Francis International School) (1996)

St. Catherine Labouré School, Wheaton, Maryland (1993)

St. Elizabeth School, Rockville, Maryland (1985)

Independent Catholic Schools

Our Lady of Good Counsel High School, Olney, Maryland (2001 and 1992)

Academy of the Holy Cross, Kensington, Maryland (1997)

Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, Bethesda, Maryland (1992 and 1986)

DeMatha Catholic High School, Hyattsville, Maryland (1990 and 1983)

Connelly School of the Holy Child, Potomac, Maryland (1988)

Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, Washington, D.C. (1986)

Elizabeth Seton High School, Bladensburg, Maryland (1984)

(Richard Szczepanowski and Josephine von Dohlen wrote this article.)