Another A + school: Blue Ribbon award celebrates excellence

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On May 9, for the first time since St. Mark School in Vienna was founded in 2003, students sang, prayed and knelt in the center pews of St. Mark Church during a school Mass. After being named a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education last fall, Father Patrick Holroyd, pastor, decided "they'd earned it," said St. Mark Principal Darcie Girmus.

"It was quite a big deal for them" to sit in the special seats, Girmus said, explaining that since the school was established nearly 40 years after the parish, students usually sat to the side of the church out of respect for parishioners.

Celebrated by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde - with Father Holroyd and Father Paul M. Grankauskas, parochial vicar, concelebrating and Deacon John P. Allen assisting - the Mass was an opportunity to focus on the students' academic achievement as well as their efforts to grow spiritually.

"For a Catholic school, excellence in education, though very important, is not enough; excellence in faith formation is essential as well," said Bishop Loverde in the homily. "Because the goal of Catholic education is the development of the whole person - body, mind, emotions and soul."

St. Mark and Our Lady of Hope School in Potomac Falls were designated a Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence last fall, among 50 private schools in the country to receive the award. The award is given to schools that have shown either dramatic gains in student achievement or are academically superior. More than 60 percent of Arlington diocesan Catholic schools now have revived the honor.

Girmus said that behind St. Mark's academic excellence is the commitment and hard work of the pastor, the school families, and "our highly collegial and committed faculty, who help each student reach his or her potential."

Waiting to take her seat in one of the center pews prior to Mass, eighth-grader Alex Sechser echoed the principal's words. "They really care about each student here," she said. "If you need extra help with math for example, teachers stay after school and help."

"You really feel like teachers care deeply, and it feels like a community," added classmate Julia Mancusi.

Girmus said that along with a strong community, the school is dedicated to reaching out "to all learners," including those with intellectual disabilities. St. Mark was the first diocesan elementary school to offer a program for students with intellectual disabilities through its Evangelist Program.

When St. Mark learned of its Blue Ribbon status in September, students and staff were treated to ice cream with blue M&M's. The school later held a thanksgiving prayer service as a reminder of the school's ultimate goal: putting faith front and center.

"In the end, there is yet another 'Blue Ribbon of excellence' that we are seeking," said Bishop Loverde at the close of his homily. Ultimately we strive for the "blue ribbon" achieved by "reaching our inheritance to live with the Lord forever in complete happiness and joy."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016