By AILA BOYD
aboyd@ourvalley.org

Students, parents and school staff cheer as the National Blue Ribbon flag is hoisted up the flagpole at Colonial Elementary School.
The National Blue Ribbon flag flies alongside the Virginia state flag and the national flag in front of the school.

Due to the fact that only two members of Colonial Elementary School were allowed to attend a ceremony in Washington D.C. last November when the school was honored as a National Blue Ribbon winner, the school decided to hold its own ceremony last Wednesday so that everyone could get a taste of the excitement that goes along with the extremely rare honor.

Everything was decked out in blue – a blue carpet, blue T-shirts, blue ribbons and blue balloons.

“We’re here to celebrate that we achieved something amazing,” Tammy Riggs, principal, said.

Riggs explained how she found out that the school had been nominated to become a National Blue Ribbon school.

“Last year I received an email that said that we had been nominated for this National Blue Ribbon award. I just ignored it because I thought that it was a kind of scam or something,” Riggs said.

She then received an email from Chris Kelly from the Virginia Department of Education wanting to know why she hadn’t responded. He informed her that the nomination was in fact legitimate.

Still unconvinced, she looked Kelly up on the Virginia Department of Education website in order to verify that he was who he said he was and double checked with Superintendent John Busher.

Busher informed her that being nominated to become a National Blue Ribbon school is “a big deal,” at which time she took in the gravity of the situation.

Kelly was on hand for the ceremony.

“Always believe that you are doing wonderful work here at Colonial Elementary School,” Kelly said. “We are extremely proud of the Botetourt community, as well as Colonial Elementary School. You serve as a symbol of the best schools in Virginia.”

Kelly stressed the magnitude of the honor, noting that only seven schools throughout Virginia are selected to become National Blue Ribbon schools each year. Because there are currently 1,813 elementary, middle and high schools in Virginia, he said, Colonial Elementary School had stiff competition. He added that on the national level, Colonial Elementary School was one of only 300 schools selected.

“Once you’re a Blue Ribbon school, you’re always a Blue Ribbon school,” he said.

The one downside to being named a National Blue Ribbon school was that only Riggs and one teacher were allowed to attend the ceremony in person in the nation’s capital. Because, as Riggs explained, the process of selecting only one teacher was so difficult, a vote was conducted to see who the lucky person would be. Tammie Steger, a third grade teacher, was ultimately selected to represent the school alongside Riggs.

“When we were there, we were kind of saddened by the fact that only the two of us got to experience that,” Riggs said. “Today is our effort to bring it home and to bring it to you because Ms. Steger and I did not achieve this award by any stretch. The people who achieved this award are sitting in this room right now: every student, every teacher, every staff member and parents. We did this together.”

County officials who represent the Blue Ridge District were also on hand for the festivities. Scott Swortzel, vice chair of the Botetourt County School Board, and Billy Martin, of the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors, shared their thoughts on the school’s achievement.

“We’re here today because the United States Department of Education has said that Colonial Elementary School is among the best. They said that our faculty and staff members are among the best,” Swortzel said. “They said that our students are among the best.”

Swortzel said that the foundation at Colonial Elementary School is solid and that its desire to succeed is strong.

He went on to note that it will be exciting to see how the school will continue to evolve once the new school building is up and running.

“It’s easy to win one game. It’s very difficult to go undefeated. Going undefeated requires discipline, leadership, focus, support, understanding and commitment from each member of the team. It means having the ability to run fast as a group while not leaving someone behind. It means having the strength to lift and do the heavy lifting while your other hand may be pulling up a teammate,” he said. “Colonial Elementary School finished the season undefeated. You have attained the highest prize.”

Martin started his speech by noting that Colonial Elementary School has long been one of the best-kept secrets of the county, adding that now the secret is out.

“For nearly 80 years, just a little longer than I’ve been around, Colonial Elementary is often one of the best educations in the region,” he said. “This has been the result of a team effort.”

Martin thanked students and parents of the school, saying, “You’ve done the hard work of showing up, of being active in the learning.”

Busher also said a few words.

Riggs introduced him by characterizing him as one of the school’s biggest cheerleaders.

Busher started his remarks by explaining that his face hurt from smiling so much.

“It is the mission of Botetourt County Public Schools to ensure that all students, all students, participate in quality learning experiences, quality learning experiences, necessary to grow, to adapt and to meet the challenges of responsible citizenship in a changing global society,” Busher read from the division’s mission statement, noting that the mission was being fulfilled at Colonial Elementary School.

In order to shed light on how long the tradition of both academic and civic excellence has been going on at the school, two alumni recounted what their experiences were like when they were students.

“Once a Colonial kiddo, always a Colonial kiddo,” Riggs said while introducing them.

Ethan Webster, a current Lord Botetourt High School student, graduated from Colonial Elementary School in 2013.

He explained that his family has a long history with the school. It was where his great-grandmother attended school and where his parents first met. His mother, Mitzi Webster, currently works as a first grade teacher at the school.

“When Mrs. Riggs asked me to speak today, I began to reflect on my time at Colonial. Two words came to mind: support and passion,” Webster said.

He said that the teachers at the school truly care about their students.

“Teachers at this school don’t only support you academically,” Webster said. “They support you in your personal lives by providing guidance.”

He added that the teachers have a passion for education, which contributes to the success of their students.

“When I look back at my time at Colonial, I realize the hard work and care of the staff here,” he said.

He ended his speech by urging the students to thank their teachers for “all of the hard work they do.”

Natalie Guerra, a current middle school student, explained that before coming to Colonial Elementary School, she was mistreated by teachers at a school in a different division.

She said that once she arrived at the now Blue Ribbon award winner, she discovered that the teachers strived for inclusivity.

“They see us all equally,” she said.

Grace Corey, a fifth grader, spoke on behalf of current Colonial Elementary School students.

“This school is one of the best schools in the United States, maybe even the world,” she said.

She went on to explain that she started attending the school in the second grade and felt welcomed from the minute she walked through the front door.

Following the speeches, everyone braved the cold in order to watch as the National Blue Ribbon flag that was given to Riggs and Steger in Washington, D.C. was placed on the flagpole at the front of the school.

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