Students at Our Lady of Lourdes in Bethesda cheer during a special assembly announcing that their school has been named as a 2015 National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. (CS Photo by Michael Hoyt)
Students at Our Lady of Lourdes in Bethesda cheer during a special assembly announcing that their school has been named as a 2015 National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. (CS Photo by Michael Hoyt)

The entranceway to Our Lady of Lourdes School says a lot about that Catholic school nestled in the heart of bustling downtown Bethesda, Maryland.

As part of Our Lady of Lourdes School’s 75th anniversary year, a bronze statue of a Sister of St. Francis in full habit stands beside the steps leading up to the school’s front door, honoring the legacy of the 94 women religious who staffed the school from its opening in 1941 until 1979. Their names are listed on a plaque near the statue, which was recently blessed by Washington Auxiliary Bishop Mario Dorsonville to help kick off the school’s anniversary year and to commemorate the Catholic Church’s Year of Consecrated Life.

Each day, 282 children in prekindergarten through the eighth grade walk through those doors. Twelve percent of those students have learning differences, including children with dyslexia, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and who are on the autism spectrum.

And on Sept. 29, a banner was hung above the entranceway to Our Lady of Lourdes School, announcing that it had been named as a 2015 National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education.

At a surprise assembly that morning in the school’s gym, blue balloons hung from the walls, and students and teachers wore blue leis. After leading them in an opening prayer to the school’s patron saint, Our Lady of Lourdes, the school’s principal, Patricia McGann, announced the honor, and the students and teachers erupted in loud cheers. 

Thomas Burnford, the Archdiocese of Washington’s secretary for Catholic education, congratulated the school community, saying it’s not easy to be designated as a National Blue Ribbon School – students at those schools have to score in the top 15 percent in math and reading across the United States. And he noted that of the 50 private schools nationwide to receive the honor this year, only two came from Maryland. “Guess what? You’re one of them!” he said, noting that the other private school to receive the Blue Ribbon award this year in the state is another school from the archdiocese – the Cardinal Hickey Academy in Owings.

Burnford praised Lourdes’ academic excellence and its Catholic identity. “At the heart of what we do is faith formation, growing as Catholics and growing in our faith, forming the whole child,” he said, and he read a letter from Cardinal Wuerl congratulating the school community and commending the hard work of the students and teachers which resulted in the honor. In an interview just before the assembly at Our Lady of Lourdes School, Burnford described the Blue Ribbon award as “the Super Bowl of education.”

Addressing her school community during the assembly, McGann said, “Today is a banner day for our school.”

The principal added that the teachers there “believe in the potential of every child,” and with their dedication, with parents’ support and the hard work of students, the U.S. Department of Education officially recognized what the Our Lady of Lourdes community knew all along about their school – that it is a special place.

“We dreamt of a school with doors wide open, where every child would be welcomed, valued and treasured,” the Our Lady of Lourdes principal said. “They know an inclusive Catholic school can also be a school that demonstrates the highest academic performance.”

Loud cheers erupted again as McGann announced that, as part of Our Lady of Lourdes School’s celebration of the Blue Ribbon award, students would have a tag day and not be required to wear school uniforms the next day. Cheers grew louder still when she added, “There will be no homework tonight,” and that students should return to their classrooms, put their books and papers away, and join a schoolwide party that afternoon on the playground and field. 

After a brief moment of solemnity, as students, teachers, parents and guests prayed the Hail Mary together, some children joyously stomped in unison on the gym floor and chanted, “We will, we will rock you,” from the famous rock anthem by Queen, while third graders formed an impromptu conga line. Soon, the basketball court outside was transformed into a dance floor, as a disc jockey played music, while other students ran around or huddled together on the soccer field to celebrate their school’s honor.

In an interview after the assembly, McGann said the inclusion program at Our Lady of Lourdes School seemed a natural step for a school that historically served students from diverse ethnic, racial and economic backgrounds.

“What they learn is what you and I see in the world. There are all kinds of different people. There are different times when we all need help,” the principal said. “It’s such a Catholic idea, that every human being has the same dignity, the same rights… They (the children) are not less than we are because they learn differently or walk differently. Each teacher believes all the children belong here.”

And just as Our Lady of Lourdes is known for the healing that unfolds at her grotto and shrine in France, the Bethesda school named for her is the sight of small miracles every day, miracles resulting from the lessons in faith and friendship that children learn there, the principal said. She noted that a Lourdes eighth grader got to have his holy card blessed by Pope Francis outside the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington the week before, and returned to school and gave it to a classmate who didn’t get to see the pope in person. 

The entire Our Lady of Lourdes School student body took the “Walk with Francis Pledge” to honor the pope’s visit to Washington, with middle school students pledging to pray the rosary. The school is also known for its service projects, which include sixth, seventh and eighth graders raking leaves in the fall for their grandparents and for elderly people in the neighborhood.

Speaking of the lessons that children learn there, Kelly McMahon – the mother of two Lourdes students – said, “They realize we’re all different, but we’re all the same. We’re all God’s children.”

Another parent, Joe Capizzi, has sent his six children to the school, including three current students. “These (their classmates) are like their brothers, sisters, cousins, friends – part of the family,” he said.

Before the assembly, Bill Hudak, a 2003 graduate of Our Lady of Lourdes School who is now the P.E. teacher there, praised the school’s teachers, saying, “The teachers make it special. They’re the ones here day in and day out. They’re here early in the morning and late at night, trying to make the day perfect for students.”

That example, he said, inspired him to become a teacher and to return to Our Lady of Lourdes School. “My teachers gave to me for so long. I want to give back,” he said.

Lourdes eighth grader Beatrice Ieronimo said their teachers “all believe we have potential. That makes a difference. They really care about each of us.” She also praised the school’s inclusive educational program, saying, “It makes you see how the world is going to be, and how you treat people. If you meet someone who’s different, you’ll treat them with respect.”