As they welcomed Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory to their school on Sept. 26, students at St. Joseph’s Regional Catholic School in Beltsville, Maryland, knew this was not an ordinary school assembly.

But there was some stealth involved, because they didn’t know there was more to the gathering than the question-and-answer session with their new archbishop on his first visit to the school. Archbishop Gregory good-naturedly fielded questions from students, like what he likes best about his work (“spending time with young people”), what he likes to play (“golf and music… just about every kind of music, especially classical, jazz and light rock” but not “acid rock and country”) and the most challenging part of being a bishop (he responded it’s to help people in the Church get along with each other -- “just like any family, there are sometimes squabbles… (but) in the end, it’s most important that a family love each other, care for each other and get along”).

The students learned that Archbishop Gregory, like them, attended Catholic school (St. Carthage in Chicago, where he was inspired by the example of the parish priests and Dominican sisters to become Catholic and where he first felt called to someday become a priest).

First graders serenaded him by singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and students in the school’s choir sang “Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God.”

First graders at St. Joseph's Regional Catholic School in Beltsville sing a song for Archbishop Gregory during his Sept. 26 visit to the school. Moments later, he made a surprise announcement that St. Joseph's had been named as a Blue Ribbon School. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

But then when Father Andrew Wakefield, the parish’s administrator, asked Archbishop Gregory if he had any words of wisdom for the students as the school year was underway, the archbishop revealed a surprise to the students, announcing, “St. Joseph's has a wonderful tradition of educating wonderful men and women of faith, of generosity and of love. Because of that, I'm here to announce that you have been recognized by the government of the United States as a Blue Ribbon School.”

At that news, students, teachers and parents erupted in loud cheers and gave their school a standing ovation. The balloons around the stage reflected the maroon and white in their school uniforms, with blue balloons to signify their school’s award.

Before offering them a blessing to close the school assembly, Archbishop Gregory said the National Blue Ribbon Schools honor reflected the work of students, teachers and parents, and he encouraged the schoolchildren to “continue to grow in your love for God, your love for learning and your love for each other.”

The U.S. Department of Education announced Sept. 26 that 362 schools across the United States had been named as National Blue Ribbon Schools for 2019, including 50 non-public schools and 312 public schools. Along with St. Joseph’s , three other Catholic elementary schools in the Archdiocese of Washington were also named as 2019 National Blue Ribbon Schools -- Blessed Sacrament School in Washington, D.C.; St. Raphael School in Rockville, Maryland; and St. Peter School on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

Archbishop Gregory offers a closing prayer at the assembly where he had announced that St. Joseph's Regional Catholic School in Beltsville had been named a Blue Ribbon School. At left is Dr. Janine Bertolotti, the school's principal, and at center is Father Andrew Wakefield, St. Joseph Parish's administrator. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

After returning to their classrooms, students celebrated the honor with cake, popsicles and ice cream.

Also attending the assembly at St. Joseph’s Regional Catholic School was Bill Ryan, the superintendent and secretary of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Washington, who told the Catholic Standard afterward that the school’s achievement was “pretty amazing.”

“We know over the last several years, they worked very hard to ensure every child had what they needed to be successful,” he said, noting that included extra help for students, tutoring, and one-on-one assistance from teachers

“That commitment to every single child” has helped St. Joseph’s Regional Catholic School become one of the highest performing elementary schools in the archdiocese, and helped it become a Blue Ribbon School, said Ryan, who sported a blue shirt and blue striped tie for the celebration.

St. Joseph’s serves 200 children in pre-kindergarten through the eighth grade. The school’s website notes that its students scored in the top 15 percent nationally in reading and math for grades 1-8 based on 2018 assessments, and 90 percent of their eighth graders were selected to attend their first choice high school, earning $221,000 worth of scholarships.

The curriculum at St. Joseph’s Regional Catholic School includes advanced math, algebra, cursive writing, Spanish, technology/computers, art and music, with Latin and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) offered after school.

Dr. Janine Bertolotti, St. Joseph’s principal said in an interview the Blue Ribbon award assembly for the school community offered “a celebration of all the hard work they’ve done. It’s testament that when you have a strong partnership with parents, and you keep the right things in perspective, good things come from this.”

The school’s principal, who has a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Florida, added, “It also shows Catholic schools are not just bastions of faith, but academic excellence as well.”

Father Wakefield in an interview likewise praised the hard work of students, parents and teachers, and he also noted, “I’ve been struck by the sense of community among the kids. There’s such a great spirit of camaraderie. In the morning drop-off, some of the older kids walk the younger kids into school, welcoming them in, taking them in by the hand.”

The priest, who began serving at the parish this summer, said every Tuesday afternoon all the students attend Mass together in St. Joseph’s Church. Their faith, he said, “is so genuine. Their eyes are open and their hearts are open.”

The regional school is cosponsored by three Maryland parishes: St. Joseph in Beltsville, St. Hugh of Grenoble in Greenbelt, and St. Nicholas in Laurel. Also attending the ceremony with Father Wakefield were Father Walter Tappe, St. Hugh’s pastor, and Father Mel Ayala, St. Nicholas’s pastor.

In an interview, Joelle Taylor, St. Joseph’s director of enrollment, testing and student services, noted that she first experienced the school as a parent. Three of her daughters have attended the school – Abigail who graduated from the eighth grade this spring, Sarah who is now a fourth grader, and Jamie who is a first grader there.

“I saw something special in this school – I saw a combination of diversity and expectation of academic excellence in a Christ-centered environment,” she said.

Taylor, who came from a corporate background, began volunteering in the library, and said now she feels blessed to offer her skills as a staff member there.

“We tell the children that no matter where they are when they come to us, we know they’re capable of excellence. We recognize the gifts, talents and abilities God has given them, and we motivate them to be their best,” she said.

Sixth grader Inaayah Jiwani, who has family roots in El Salvador and Pakistan, said of her teachers, “They know what they’re teaching.” She said when topics like the Civil War are taught in history class, “you feel like you’re there. Science class makes you feel like a scientist.”

St. Joseph’s Regional Catholic School is also known for its service to the community. Four years ago, eighth grader Michaela West started a club there called “Bundles of Love,” where students compile toiletries, clothing and non-perishable food, wrap it with twine in a blanket or sleeping bag along with a handwritten note, and join parents in delivering them to homeless people. Earlier this year, West received a Youth Service Award from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s Office on Service and Volunteerism, and “Bundles of Love” has now spread to student groups in 17 states and in Canada and New Zealand.

“I wanted to help them (the homeless) know they weren’t forgotten,” said West, describing her motivation for starting the outreach. “It makes me feel good, because they (students) are taking part in something good and helping people who need it the most.”

West, a member of St. Joseph’s Parish who has attended its school for the past 10 years, since prekindergarten, said, “We’re more like a family than just classmates.”

A young student from St. Joseph's Regional Catholic School walks hand-in-hand with Archbishop Gregory after the Blue Ribbon Award assembly. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Marie Russo, a third grade teacher at St. Joseph’s who was recognized as a Golden Apple Award winning teacher by the archdiocese this spring, graduated from the school in 1982.  Reflecting on the parish and school that she grew up in, she said, “It’s just an extension of my family.”

Of the school’s students, she said, “I love the way they think. I love the way they look at the world. They’re always willing to help each other.”

Russo noted that a special learning experience there unfolds in the fall at the school’s annual multicultural celebration, when students wear fashions, bring in food and cultural items, and experience music and dancing from some of the countries where their families have roots.

“It helps them understand we do have common ground and some things that are unique” to our cultures, she said.

Dr. Bertolotti, who wore a blue blouse that afternoon to reflect her school’s Blue Ribbon Award, noted that St. Joseph’s students have roots in 32 countries, with families that speak 25 different languages. She said students there learn that their “humanity is the same. Our dignity, our respect for each other as brothers and sisters in Christ is at the core.”