WASHINGTON -- It was a big day for Perryville Middle School, and 600 students, 40 parents, 40 teachers, the secretaries, the local school superintendent, the principal, three custodians and most of the cafeteria staff came to Washington yesterday to celebrate it.
The town commission even approved $100 toward travel costs.
"That's big money for us," Principal David D. Rudolph said.
Big money for a big occasion. Yesterday, in an annual ceremony sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, President George Bush recognized the Cecil County school and 221 others across the country as "Blue Ribbon" schools. Each of those schools received plaques, prestige and flags adorned with the presidential seal.
The 9-year-old program is intended to recognize successful schools at a time when American education is under fire. Schools are nominated by state education officials. This year 490 schools were nominated.
For the first time since 1983, when the program was established, all eight Maryland public schools nominated passed muster. There was even a public school from Baltimore, the Baltimore School for the Arts.
Other Maryland schools honored were: In Montgomery County, Winston Churchill and Richard Montgomery high schools; in Prince George's County, Eleanor Roosevelt and DeMatha Catholic high schools; in Harford County, Havre de Grace High School; and in Frederick, Governor Thomas Johnson High School.
"We're charting a new course for our nation's schools," Mr. Bush told about 800 people representing schools from as far away as Germany and as close as Washington yesterday. "In that course, your schools are the pioneers, the ones blazing a path that others can follow. The goals we want to shoot for in the year 2000 are the goals you are shooting for today."
The annual event means a lot to schools, whether they're in a small town in Cecil County or an urban core such as Baltimore. Though the number of schools competing is relatively small -- for example, in Maryland, 22 public schools applied and eight were nominated -- the prestige is enormous. Benefits such as increased local support often follow.
"This is our 12th year and I'm totally subjective . . . but I think we're doing a great job," said David Simon, principal of the Baltimore School of the Arts. "All of this pomp and circumstance is perhaps the only time that this gets known nationally -- even locally."
Leslie Seyffert, the school's dean of arts administration, expects the award will boost recruitment possibilities. The school draws 71 percent of its 290 students from Baltimore and about 25 percent from surrounding counties.
Mr. Rudolph, of Perryville, put it this way: "This program has a tremendous impact on the community that a school serves. Today is just a one-day ceremony, but the fact that the little community of Perryville was nationally recognized makes the entire community proud."
Hence the bus exodus from Cecil County to Washington, though only Mr. Rudolph and three VIPs actually attended the award ceremony.
Schools complete a rigorous self-evaluation to win the awards, which go to elementary schools and secondary schools on alternate years. This year, schools filled out 32-page questionnaires intended to probe everything from ethnic diversity and course content to atmosphere and the quality of school leadership.
A panel of 100 educators and citizens reviews the applications to choose schools for follow-up visits. Two educational experts visit each school for two days, sitting through classes and talking to parents, students, teachers and community members.
For Sarah Pinkney-Murkey, of Westland Intermediate school in Bethesda, the application process provided a chance to do some soul-searching.
"It helps each school look at itself," she said. "I think every school should do this," she said.