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There is a sense of joy around Deerfield’s Holy Cross School these days.
The private, Catholic K-8 school became one of 337 institutions nationwide — only 50 of them private — and 22 in Illinois to be named Blue Ribbon Schools by the United States Department of Education last month.
“It’s just joyful,” Principal Janice DiVincenzo said. “It really shows an affirmation of everything we do.”
Before a school can even apply, its test scores must put it in the top 15 percent of all schools nationally for five consecutive years, according to DiVincenzo. Students at Holy Cross take the Terra Nova Multiple Assessment, an alternative standardized achievement test. Because Holy Cross is private, students cannot take the ISAT, a test given to all public students in Illinois.
“Holy Cross received the Blue Ribbon Honor for its students’ exemplary high performance on the state assessments,” a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education said. “They are among 50 private schools across the country who received the award this year. We congratulate them on the school and community wide teamwork they have displayed to help their students achieve very high learning standards.”
Deerfield High School did not apply for the distinction, nor did any of the Deerfield Public Schools District 109 schools. Scores cannot be compared between the institutions because different tests are administered.
The academic achievement is no surprise to Holy Cross staff, like fourth-grade teacher Ardith Shea. She sees the students strive to achieve every day in class.
“They come ready to learn, to create” Shea said. “This is not unlike other schools on the North Shore. The teacher takes the group (so far) and they go the rest of the way.”
Community is one of the factors DiVincenzo credits for Holy Cross’s achievements. She cites the school’s inclusive practices, faith and the presence of students from kindergarten through eighth grade in one place as some of the threads which weave the Holy Cross fabric.
“We have a buddy system where the older kids help the younger kids whether it’s with reading or putting on their boots in the winter,” DiVincenzo said. “We’re a close knit group. Everyone knows and respects each other.”
The elements DiVincenzo described are noticed by parents like Cathy Sheble of Lincolnshire. Her eighth-grader is the third of her children to go through Holy Cross. The two older ones now attend Loyola Academy.
“The kids have a lot of respect for their peers and their teachers. I believe it makes them more compassionate,” Sheble said.
“It’s important to help others,” she added, referring to the school’s community service requirement for students. “We’re fortunate to be able to send our kids there.”
DiVincenzo notes that Catholicism plays an important role in the students’ development. Prayer is part of the children’s experience.
“This is a Catholic community and we teach those values,” DiVincenzo said.
Jen Bobay of Deerfield, the mother of a second-grader, likes the way student are included in the religions services. She is also part of the parent advisory board and chairs the alumni committee.
“I like the way they have an important role in the masses,” Bobay said. “They learn the value of prayer and the values of their religion in school. They value something together and can all achieve at a great school.”
The culture of inclusion goes beyond the classroom and the help an older buddy gives a younger one. It is carried to the athletic field as well.
“We have a no-cut policy,” DiVincenzo said of the sports teams. “There are required minutes (for each player). They can try something on for size and find out if they like it or if it something they are good at. They have the support of their coaches and teammates.”
DiVincenzo does not think requiring all team members to play some time in every game reduces the Chargers’ athletic success.
“You should see all the banners on our wall,” she said.