AIKEN - For two days, Principal Sharon Foret Cagle kept a very big secret from her faculty.
But on Friday morning, she finally got to spill the news to her staff at Aiken Elementary, surprising them with the announcement that their school had been named a National Blue Ribbon School.
It's been 15 years since the school last received the prestigious award, and her faculty wasted no time celebrating.
They decorated Ms. Cagle's office with blue crepe paper, blue balloons and a giant banner screaming the news, she said.
"It's better than winning the lottery!" Ms. Cagle said, laughing.
"What a joy! This just acknowledges the hard work of the students, the staff members and the community with receiving this award," she said.
Refocused three years ago, the National Blue Ribbon program now parallels the goals of the No Child Left Behind Act.
In South Carolina, the only schools that could be nominated for the award are those with at least 40 percent of pupils who eat free or reduced-price meals that also are in the top 10 percent statewide, or schools with high levels of poverty that make dramatic improvements in cutting the achievement gap.
The schools also must meet the Adequate Yearly Progress standards in 2004 and 2005.
Ms. Cagle said her school falls into an elite group in the nation.
"I was reading that there's really only 300 schools in the nation that have won this award, that can claim to be a Blue Ribbon School," she said. "And there's well over a hundred thousand public and private schools in the country ... that's quite a recognition."
Other schools receiving the award in South Carolina are Sampit Elementary in Georgetown County, Stono Park Elementary in Charleston County and Woodruff High in Spartanburg.
St. Andrew Catholic School, a private school in Myrtle Beach, also was named a Blue Ribbon School.
In its 2004 report card, Aiken Elementary was rated "excellent," met all 19 yearly progress objectives and exceeded improvement standards and both state and district scores on the Palmetto Achievement Challenge Tests.
The 2005 report cards are not due to be released until early November, but the 2005 PACT scores released last month show the school has continued its performance trend.
Its scores in English language arts, mathematics, science and social studies exceeded the district-wide results, often dramatically.
For instance, while 58.3 percent of fifth-graders districtwide met the basic standards in the science portion, 78 percent of Aiken Elementary fifth-graders did.
In another instance, 92.4 percent of the school's fourth-graders met the basic standard in the English part of the exam, compared with 81.4 percent across the district.
In that category, 98.1 percent of the fourth-graders who eat free or reduced-price lunches at Aiken Elementary met the basic standard.
The districtwide scores show that of all fourth-graders who eat subsidized meals, 73.3 percent met the basic standard on the English portion of PACT.
Nearly half of Aiken Elementary's pupils - 49.7 percent - eat reduced-priced or free meals.
Linda Eldridge, the superintendent of Aiken County public schools, said Aiken Elementary deserves the award as it continues its four-year trend of being named a school of excellence.
"They've just done a fantastic job at Aiken Elementary," opening their doors to dozens of pupils who choose to attend, she said.
Dr. Eldridge and the area assistant superintendent, David Caver, were at Aiken Elementary on Friday morning to announce the news to the pupils over the in-house television system.
This is the first time in years an Aiken school has received the Blue Ribbon award, Dr. Eldridge said.
School officials will be recognized nationally in Washington, D.C., later this year.
"I think so much of it's based on that they have their eyes focused on academics all the time," Dr. Eldridge said.
Reach Sandi Martin at (803) 648-1395, ext. 111, or firstname.lastname@example.org