School principals Nancy Matteo and Patti O’Donnell are experiencing a serious case of the blues. The good news is they’re not sad or depressed; they’re quite thrilled because their schools – St. Andrew in Newtown and St. Patrick in Malvern – are among 286 schools in the United States to be recognized as Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence.
Of the 15 schools statewide to be selected for the honor this year, St. Andrew’s and St. Patrick’s were the only Catholic schools in Pennsylvania to be awarded.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made the announcement Sept. 24.
St. Andrew’s was hopeful and prepared for a celebration about the good news, Matteo said. “We had letters cut out that spelled Blue Ribbon School and a lot of blue ribbon,” she said. “I don’t think there’s a blue ribbon to be purchased in Newtown because I think I bought every single one of them.”
The principal also purchased “Ask me about my Blue Ribbon School” buttons for the more than 800 students at St. Andrew’s. “They want to wear the buttons all the time,” said Matteo, who has been principal of the Bucks County school for 12 years. “One student said it was like wearing a trophy.”
Although this was the second time Matteo and her staff applied for Blue Ribbon recognition, it’s not the first time she has been honored on a national level. Last year she received a Distinguished Principal Award from the National Catholic Educational Association and the National Association of Elementary School Principals.
This is Matteo’s 24th year at St. Andrew School. She taught second grade for 11 years and was the preschool director for one year before she was named principal.
To Matteo, the Blue Ribbon designation is confirmation of a job well done. “This is wonderful recognition that we’re going in the right direction,” she said. “This is the biggest pat on the back you can give the teachers. They take their job seriously and have a lot of fun doing it. They’re the reason we won this award.”
Another key factor in the success of the school is the support of Msgr. Michael Picard, pastor ofSt.Andrew’s.
“Catholic school education has always been paramount in my priorities,” Msgr. Picard said. “As a pastor, I see it as an opportunity to assist me in my responsibilities to spread the mission of the church and the parish, and to form our young people into the life of Christ and to help them to practice their faith enthusiastically and strongly.”
Msgr. Picard’s support for the school emanates from his 18 years of experience as a teacher and principal in archdiocesan high schools.
He credits Matteo’s leadership for the Blue Ribbon honors. “Nancy is an outstanding, wonderful, faith-filled Catholic woman and a great principal,” Msgr. Picard said. “She’s the guiding light there. She’s the beacon.”
At St. Patrick’s, O’Donnell spoke to parishioners at all the Masses the weekend of Sept. 28-29. “I thanked them for the 60 years they’ve supported the school,” she said. “We would not be here without their support. I told them, ‘This is your award.’”
The parish community impressed O’Donnell when she arrived as principal four years ago. “The sense of community is one of the first things I noticed — the parents, teachers, students, the parish,” she said. “It’s a really strong community.”
This is O’Donnell’s second Blue Ribbon achievement during her 27 years in education. The first honor happened while serving as a principal in Virginia. That experience contributed to her being confident that St. Patrick would be selected this year. O’Donnell prepared for the celebration by ordering blue wrist bands for the 307 students with “Blue Ribbon Proud” inscribed on them.
“Our kids were really excited and cheering” after the announcement, O’Donnell said. “I just really feel so proud and happy for the teachers and the families and the kids to feel like they have a great school and to have it recognized as a great school. The students make coming to school worth it.”
O’Donnell knows she is blessed to have the backing of the pastor of St. Patrick’s, Father Christopher Redcay. “His support, his wisdom, his years of experience in education are really just invaluable,” O’Donnell said. “His deep desire to have a school is an incredible experience. We work really well together.”
Father Redcay said the award recognizes the dedication of the teachers and validates that “we provide a top-notch education for our students.”
It also provides motivation for continuing to improve the school. “This is a milestone to enjoy, but there are other milestones to be reached, and we’re not going to stop here,” Father Redcay said.
St. Andrew and St. Patrick schools will be honored by the U.S. Department of Education at a recognition ceremony for Blue Ribbon Schools on Nov. 18-19 in Washington, D.C.
Founded in 1982, the National Blue Ribbon Schools Program recognizes public and private elementary, middle and high schools where students perform at very high levels or where significant improvements are being made in students’ academic achievement. Since the program’s founding, more than 7,500 schools have received the award.