Hereford High School principal Joe Jira and five key members of his staff fell for an old trick when they were lured to participate in a mid-December roundtable discussion at the offices of the Maryland State Department of Education in Baltimore.
Once there, they were told that their school was chosen to be among the state elite by earning designation as a Maryland Blue Ribbon School.
"It was just a ruse to get us there," Jira said about the faux meeting he attended with Assistant Principal Emily Book, teacher Barb Plunkert, Rowdy Bibaud, social studies teacher Jon Shinnick, English/AVID teacher Laura Blama and Ellen Fitzkee. "We were really surprised."
Because school administrators did not apply for the honor, it's understandable why they were caught off guard.
MDSE spokesman Bill Reinhard said that his organization's research into state schools' performance is not to be taken lightly.
"Basically, we're looking for high-performing schools," Reinhard said of the Blue Ribbon evaluation process that requires scores in the top 15 percent of all Maryland schools in mathematics and reading in the year of selection. "We run the numbers on all the schools. It's a very rigorous process."
Reinhard added that the way school officials are informed of the honor is part of the procedure.
"We've been doing it that way for years," he said. "It's just a lot of fun."
The Hereford contingent could not have been happier about being fooled once they discovered the real reason for the gathering. Nor were they alone in the feeling of excitement that swept the newly renovated building on York Road.
"Everybody was really excited," said Hereford junior Jordyn Wilson, the vice president of both the Baltimore County and Hereford student governments, about the students' positive reaction to the announcement. "The news got around very quickly."
Moreover, the Parkton school's burgeoning reputation for overall excellence will also be recognized outside the state now that Hereford will be vying for national honors.
And while it's not a foregone conclusion that the national designation will follow, it is a likely outcome.
"To be honest, most of our state Blue Ribbon Schools go on to be national selectees," Reinhard said.
One of the ways to elevate Hereford's profile is to point out the school's attributes to any and all interested parties, knowing that there's a lot to like about the school's programs.
"We're told that we should toot our own horn about what makes Hereford so special," said Plunkert, the school's STAT (Students and Teachers Assessing Tomorrow) teacher.
Jira said that there are many reasons for the school's success, including quality instructors, motivated students and active parent involvement.
"It's really a combination of things and people," he said. "But we have a phenomenal group of teachers who constantly find innovative ways to get kids to achieve at the highest possible level."
At the top end, the school curriculum boasts 23 Advanced Placement programs, although there's room for all 1,184 students to fit under the Hereford umbrella.
A weeklong summer orientation period, called the Hereford Connection Program, is geared toward helping incoming students acclimate to the academic expectations that will greet them their freshman year.
"We designed and funded the program," Jira said. "We track these kids and follow how they're doing. We meet with them once a month during the school year to make sure they're doing well."
Although interscholastic athletics competition is not among the criteria for the Blue Ribbon designation, Jiro was quick to praise recent state championships garnered by the varsity indoor track and field hockey teams. The varsity wrestling team reigns tops in the county again after a two-year drought.
"And our girls varsity basketball team is really doing well," the Cockeysville resident said about a team that won 17 of 20 games this season and advanced to the Class 2A North Region Section II final under veteran Fitzkee, who also heads the school's highly regarded guidance department that helps usher students into either a four-year or two-year college at a 93 percent rate.
All of this and more — much more — makes Jiro proud to be in charge of such an enterprising educational institution.
"It's a dream come true for me," said Jira, an alumnus of Calvert Hall College High School and Towson University, and an educator for 34 years at the high school level. "I was an assistant principal here for six years before moving up. Usually, a principal is brought in from the outside, but I was lucky enough to get the job."
And he is also fortunate to reap the benefits of a $50 million renovation that gussied up portions of the old building and added gleaming wings, a 350-seat cafeteria and a new water tower.
The 3 1/2 -year project, which is in its final stages, even came in under budget.
Regardless of the price, science/agriculture department chairman Bibaud is thrilled with his new digs, which include 11 state-of-the-art classrooms in the science wing.
The new wing offers the facilities to allow for cutting-edge technology to be used in agri-science and ag mechanics, Bibaud said about the program geared toward students who reside in the county's most rural areas. "We teach carpentry, electrical, plumbing and farm engine repair, and then the students can get career work experience through an internship," he said.
Another Hereford innovation is the "enrichment hour," a daily program from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. that features two half-hour segments for eating lunch, attending club meetings, studying or receiving extra help from teachers. Students must sign up every day before 9:45 a.m. to confirm what they will be doing, and that information is logged into a computer so teachers can track their whereabouts.
"We have other schools coming in to see how we do it," said Bibaud, whose wife, Tiffany, is a Spanish teacher at Hereford, her alma mater. "The kids have to be where they say they're going to be, and we have to stay on top of it. It works very well."
Jira also is justifiably proud of the arts department, which he says rivals its counterpart at fellow 2016 Blue Ribbon School George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology.
He has a point, considering that art teacher Joanne Bare said that five recent Hereford grads were selected in a national competition to study art at Brown University.
"It's all part of the package," Jira said. "There are so many programs here that make us a Blue Ribbon School."
According to the student government's Wilson, who will introduce Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent S. Dallas Dance when he gives his "state of the schools" address next month, some intangibles are also involved.
"I see a lot of different schools around the county," she said. "It's the community — the Hereford Zone. You just get a welcoming feeling here that helps us thrive."