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Philadelphia’s Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush gets National Blue Ribbon award

A woman points to yellow posters with Post-It notes on the wall as adults sitting at desks look on.

Consulting teacher Dana Singletary prepares a group of new teachers for the classroom during an orientation session at the Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush in Northeast Philadelphia. The high school has been named a National Blue Ribbon School for 2022 by the U.S. Department of Education.

Emma Lee / WHYY

The Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush High School in Northeast Philadelphia has been named a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education.

The Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush is the only district school in Philadelphia this year to win the honor, which is awarded to schools for overall high academic performance or for helping underserved groups make progress.

The school was chosen as a Blue Ribbon school by the education department for being an exemplary high-performing school, based on all student scores, student subgroup scores, and graduation rates.

Rush, one of 56 high schools in the district, opened its doors in 2008 in the Chalfont section of Northeast and serves more than 620 students in grades 9-12 from across the city. Sixty-seven percent of its students are considered economically disadvantaged. Almost 20% of its student body is African-American, and 18% is Latino. Thirty-eight percent of Rush’s students participate in Advanced Placement courses. 

Latoyia Bailey, Rush’s first Black principal who took over the school in July 2021, credits part of the success to the school’s Relationship First program, which is a district initiative that aims to build strong relationships between students and staff members.

To maintain Rush’s progress, she plans to implement an honors program for ninth graders and have more Advanced Placement classes next year.

“I think we were not servicing as many students in special education as we could. I want to make sure that we diversify our population not only students of color, but also students within the realm of special needs,” Bailey said. “I also want to make sure people understand our mission is social justice through the arts. I love social media and believe we can use it for good in educating our students.”

Rush celebrated its  Blue Ribbon honor on Monday, when it got a visit from Superintendent Tony Watlington. The superintendent lauded the school’s “hard work” and called it a “shining example” for the district. 

Bailey noted that the school’s award is a reflection of data from years before she took over the school, and highlighted the work of Rush’s former principal Lori DeFields, who was principal at Rush from 2014 to 2021.

DeFields told Chalkbeat that during her tenure, all teachers ran programs outside of their teaching area. She said the school tried to establish “outlets for students to really grow as a community, where they can see themselves as a scholar and as a member of a larger community.”

Schools are nominated by state education officials, and school officials complete lengthy application forms, which request information on a variety of topics that include community engagement and extracurricular activities.

Fifteen district schools have been honored since the National Blue Ribbon Schools program started in 1982. Schools that have won the award twice are Central, Masterman, Franklin Learning Center, Carver High School of Engineering and Science, and Hill-Freedman, all of which are high schools with selective admissions criteria. Penn Alexander Elementary has also won the award twice. 

“Blue Ribbon schools have gone above and beyond to keep students healthy and safe while meeting their academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement Friday.

Ten Pennsylvania schools in total have won Blue Ribbon awards this year, out of 297 nationwide.

Bureau Chief Johann Calhoun covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. He oversees Chalkbeat Philadelphia’s education coverage. Contact Johann at jcalhoun@chalkbeat.org.

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