Nearly all the students raised their hands when Monsignor Richard Woy asked if they had watched the Olympics in Beijing this past summer. The students, teachers and parents had gathered inside the chapel at St. John the Evangelist School for a celebration.
Woy quizzed the boys and girls, "Who won all the gold?"
The children knew: Maryland native Michael Phelps, who garnered eight gold medals for swimming. "And what does that mean?" he asked the students.
"You're the best," said Moy, repeating a student's answer. "Absolutely."
An award celebration last week to honor the school's achievement as a blue-ribbon school - recognizing academic achievement and awarded to just 320 schools nationwide this year - turned into a lesson for the students, as the school's leaders explained that their hard work and determination had earned them reason to feel proud.
The Severna Park elementary school was one of two in the county and eight across the state - and the first in the Baltimore Archdiocese - to win the honor. (The other Anne Arundel school is Broadneck Elementary.)
The school received word last month of the recognition, and a committee - which gathered after Mass on Thursdays - planned last Friday's festivities. Bunches of blue balloons were arranged inside the school's church. A huge sign in front of the school along Ritchie Highway proclaimed the accomplishment. And the students each received a certificate, a blue-ribbon pin and (perhaps most important to many) a cupcake to celebrate.
An official from the U.S. Department of Education presented Sister Linda Larsen, the principal, with a plaque commemorating the award. State education officials, a representative for Gov. Martin O'Malley and several of the county's elected officials offered proclamations. County Executive John R. Leopold visited the school earlier in the day to congratulate them on their achievement.
Larsen, who told the audience they had joined "an elite, the best, the top group" of students and educators across the country, received a standing ovation.
"This is only the beginning," said Edward Cashman of the U.S. Department of Education. "What you're learning here ... it's going to be with you for the rest of your life. Education is something you take with you everywhere you go. ... You are going to be the future leaders of this country."
The school, which runs from kindergarten through eighth grade, was founded in 1959. The Council for American Private Education nominates just 50 schools each year to compete for the designation. St. John the Evangelist qualified for its stellar academics: its students placed in the top 10th percentile nationwide on standardized tests, and foreign languages are taught as a major subject for middle-schoolers.
"It's definitely brought a lot of exuberance," said Cathy Weadon, one of three kindergarten teachers at the school. "It's a great sense of excitement."
Weadon said two of her daughters have graduated from the school, and her twins - a boy and a girl - are in the eighth grade. The family moved from the Pasadena area to be closer to the school, which they credit with providing their children with a solid education and Catholic values.
"It's been a lot of sacrifice financially, but I think it's been worth it," Weadon said. "As a teacher, you look at your role as more of a vocation than a job, a mission for the children and for the parents, too."