Mary, Mother of the Redemer and Ancillae- Assumpta earn national recognition

By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

NORTH WALES – If Mary, Mother of the Redeemer School in North Wales was an automobile, it would be a Bugatti. The Bugatti holds the record for accelerating from 0 to 100 kilometers per hour in 2.4 seconds. Mary, Mother of the Redeemer has accelerated from 0 to being named a 2010 National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence in just the eight short years since it was established.

The Blue Ribbon is an honor shared this year by only one other Catholic school in the Archdiocese – Ancillae-Assumpta Academy in Wyncote, which was also honored back in 1986 and 1992.

The Blue Ribbon program was established by the U.S. Department of Education in 1982 as a means to recognize elementary, middle and high schools with either high performance or high improvement, especially schools that serve disadvantaged students. {{more}}

This year’s award ceremony, held in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 16 and presided over by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, honored a total of 304 schools nationwide, including 14 from Pennsylvania.

“It was great to share the recognition with Ancillae-Assumpta,” said Mary, Mother of the Redeemer principal Mary Judge. “It not so much distinguishes us but unites us with other schools working equally hard.”

Her school has shown consistent improvement in standardized tests over the past five years and combines that with some interesting programs. For example, all the children in kindergarten through eighth grade receive weekly Spanish language lessons, something that should give them a leg up on their peers should they pursue the language in secondary school.

“Children are sponges; the sooner we can introduce them to a language the better,” said Judge, who is in her fourth year as principal and seventh year at the school. “We work with our teachers in unit planning, making sure what we are teaching is relevant and essential,” she said. “To be entrusted with faith development and academic development of children is a great responsibility.”

Another area in which Mary, Mother of the Redeemer shines is an ambitious math program under the direction of award-winning math curriculum algebra course coordinator Kate Reardon, who teaches the subject in the upper grades as well as an honors algebra course.

“Our administration is very forward thinking and in touch with academic trends and we have a faculty willing to change,” said Reardon, who noted striving for excellence with a focus on writing and math began under the founding principal Joanne Zin and continues under the present administration.

Eighth-grader and student council president Mary Kate Curley wasn’t especially surprised to hear her school is rated excellent. “We have outstanding teachers, a safe learning environment and they make it fun,” she said.

The school also offers volleyball, basketball, football, softball and soccer. Curley is a volleyball player and a member of Beta, the school’s honor society, which has a community service component.

With children Matthew in seventh grade and Marielle in third, parent George Mussoline said, “We love the school. The math program is great, the children are well-prepared and it is very welcoming.”

Just because Ancillae-Assumpta has accomplished a very rare three-peat in the annual awards doesn’t mean they are blasé about it.

“Our students couldn’t be prouder. We had a lovely celebration when we came back from Washington at a Wednesday assembly,” said Kerry Harp, the school director and a former teacher.

Like Mary, Mother of the Redeemer, Ancillae-Assumpta was recognized for high achievement. The academy itself, a ministry of the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, is a private Catholic elementary school, and the Catholicism is integral. “We had 48 second grade kids receive First Communion on Saturday (Nov. 20) through our sacramental program,” Kerry said.

Although it was not part of the period reviewed by the Blue Ribbon selection committee, the pursuit of excellence will continue through, for example, the institution of a STEM Laboratory this year, according to Kerry.

“That stands for Science Technology, Engineering and Math,” “Not many elementary schools have this.”

As part of the STEM program students in each grade visit the lab in a different methodology with week-long sessions that permit project completion. Age-appropriate projects include Engineering is Elementary, Basic Legos, Motorized Legos, Mindstorms and Geometer Sketchpad, among others.

While winning the Blue Ribbon is an honor and a privilege, “It is an awesome responsibility,” said Sister Maureen Gillespie, A.C.J., Ancillae-Assumpta’s principal. “We must continue to teach our students to grow academically, spiritually and morally so as to be caring and responsible future leaders.”

But there is satisfaction, nonetheless, especially among the parents and students.

“Winning the Blue Ribbon Award lets us, the students, know that all of our hard work is meaningful,” said eighth-grader Sophia Cocozza.

“This is such an honor for our school and we are so proud of this important accomplishment.”