Here’s a lesson for those outside — or even within — our region who believe schools in rural Southwest Virginia could never measure up to those in areas that are more urban and affluent outside Appalachia:

Just last week, students, faculty and staff at Rural Retreat Elementary School celebrated their school being named a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education, perhaps the top award any school in America could receive.

How rare is this designation? Out of about 133,000 schools across the entire United States, only 362 are on this year’s list of designated Blue Ribbon schools.

Rural Retreat was one of just nine Virginia schools to be on the list, according to the Wytheville Enterprise.

“This is a big day. This is a gigantic day,” Wythe County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Jefferies told students gathered in the school’s gymnasium Thursday for the announcement.

The National Blue Ribbon Schools Program, now in its 37th year, recognizes schools based on superior academic achievement or on progress in closing achievement gaps, the story noted. To that end, Rural Retreat was named an Exemplary High Performing School.

“We recognize and honor your important work in preparing students for successful careers and meaningful lives,” U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a video message to the schools receiving this year’s awards.

“As a National Blue Ribbon School, your school demonstrates what is possible when committed educators hold all students and staff to high standards and create vibrant, innovative cultures of teaching and learning,” she said.

There was praise from the Virginia Department of Education as well.

“Congratulations to the teachers, principals, students and support staff whose hard work and dedication to learning and excellence have earned this national recognition,” James Lane, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, said in a statement.

“These schools share a common commitment to provide exceptional educational opportunities that will instill in their students a lifelong love of learning that is essential to achieving long-lasting academic and career success,” Lane said.

Alan Rouse, principal of Rural Retreat Elementary, gave credit for the school’s success to the relationship among the school, parents and community.

“We’ve just got a really good form for success,” he said. “It takes a lot of talented teachers, which we have, and talented students. And we’ve got great parents who really value education and what goes on in school. It’s a school-community award.”

While this surely is the top honor Rural Retreat has earned, it’s not the first. The school in June received the Virginia Department of Education’s Highest Achievement Award under the Exemplar Performance School Recognition program.

And just last year, the state Education Department gave the school its Distinguished Achievement Award.

When the students were told of the National Blue Ribbon School award during Thursday’s assembly, they erupted in cheers.

And in mid-November, representatives of the school will go to Washington, D.C., to participate in an official awards ceremony.

Just an award? Doesn’t really mean much? Hard to believe for rural Southwest Virginia?

No, no, no.

This is a really big deal, because such recognition for a school in little Rural Retreat, Virginia, along Interstate 81 in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, gives all of us hope for our schools, as well.

It shows that we’re not ready or willing to accept mediocrity in public education and blame it on geography or socio-economic status.

And it proves that with time, effort and dedicated community commitment, we can have the exemplary schools our children need and deserve.

Congratulations, Rural Retreat Elementary School. You are a beacon leading the way for the rest of us.

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