The U.S. Department of Education’s National Blue Ribbon Schools Program announced last week that Brown Avenue Elementary School is among three institutions in Rhode Island – and the first Johnston school since the 1990s – to receive the prestigious designation.
Thousands of schools across the country have been awarded a Blue Ribbon – which “celebrates school excellence, turnaround stories, and closing subgroup achievement gaps” – since the program’s inception in 1982. The program also describes itself as a “high aspiration and a potent resource of practitioner knowledge.”
Brown Avenue now joins a list that only one other Johnston school previously occupied. According to the National Blue Ribbon Schools archive, the only other Johnston institution to receive the designation was St. Rocco School in 1993-94.
Principal Helina Dlugon and Superintendent of Johnston Schools Bernard DiLullo spoke about the achievement during an interview with the Sun Rise on Monday morning at the central administration building.
Dlugon, who has helmed Brown Avenue for 18 years, said the arduous application process began in the spring and continued through August. Early last week, she received an email detailing that the winners would be announced on Sept. 26. Just before the broadcast was set to begin, she checked her email and saw that Brown Avenue was set to join the Blue Ribbon ranks.
“It’s significant,” DiLullo said of the National Blue Ribbon Award. “The importance of it all speaks to the leadership at Brown Avenue School, Miss Dlugon, along with her staff, the families and the students, obviously, because that school is a community that’s focused on student learning. When that happens, this is the outcome. You get recognized for the achievements across the board, and that really has a lot to do with the stability of the school and the leadership of that school.”
Finding the best ways to educate students has been paramount for Dlugon since her arrival at Brown Avenue, and she said working with children and their parents to determine what’s best for them is her focus.
She said that the triangular relationship between educators, parents and students is far from unique to Brown Avenue. However, she said that Brown Avenue separates itself through working “really hard at putting that child first.” She pointed to the work of staff to adapt and grow as students and methods of learning have changed over the past two decades.
Dlugon’s 18 years of experience overseeing those trends certainly come in handy.
“It brings history with it, so you're able to see what the positive things are and what needs to be tweaked and moving on and recognizing that things need to change and making those changes happen,” Dlugon said. “Sometimes they’re not easy, but we move forward and meet the challenges … So keeping up with the latest information about a child’s learning development, the latest teaching styles, techniques and looking at the whole child, not just one aspect.”
Dlugon said her staff was “quite shocked to say the least” when she revealed the news. She said held a small gathering to discuss a fire drill before unveiling the surprise.
She said they have not yet entertained the prospect of a school ceremony to celebrate the Blue Ribbon, as the news is still sinking in. There is a national event in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 14-15, which Dlugon and one other representative can attend, where Brown Avenue will receive a plaque and flag to commemorate its status.
“I think what it says is it’s a testament to the hard work that occurs at Brown Avenue,” DiLullo said. “One of the things that’s a strong aspect to what happens there is the parent support. Brown Avenue School has great parent support. They have parents who take education seriously, they will support the school in any way they can, and having those expectations – both at the school and at home – helps those students achieve.”
Brown Avenue joins Ashaway Elementary School and Flora S. Curtis Memorial School in Pawtucket as Rhode Island’s 2019 Blue Ribbon winners. That would mean the program considers Brown Avenue as one of the state’s top three elementary schools, but DiLullo quickly said, “We’d like to think the top one.”
“The superintendent said that!” Dlugon was quick to note, with a laugh.
Dlugon and DiLullo agreed that the nomination process was extensive, even “heavy duty” as the latter said. Dlugon described the staff’s help with writing and editing thousands of words that described the school’s environment, school culture, parent involvement and more.
“You have to dissect your school into different subject areas,” Dlugon said. “We had a number of staff members that helped with the writing and a number of staff members that also helped with the editing process, and then you just hit ‘submit’ and hope for the best.”
It was quite a bit of hard work, Dlugon said, but it wouldn't have been possible without her staff. She said on several occasion that their ability to work together well and embrace challenges is vital.
Now, they can enjoy the fruits of those labors with national recognition.
“I think that that’s critical, is the staff working together and helping each other out and moving forward with anything new that comes along,” Dlugon said. “They’re willing to ask questions, they’re willing to learn.”