"My 7-year-old came home thinking she was getting a blue ribbon," said Michele Whelan, a past president of the Dwight PTA.
The Redding Road elementary school is the second Fairfield public school to receive the national honor. Stratfield School was named a Blue Ribbon school twice, in 1987 and 1993. St. Thomas School was selected in 2010 and Notre Dame High School in 1997.
Public schools are nominated by state education officials for the citation from the federal Education Department as a way to recognize schools considered to be among the best in the nation. A school's application is completed jointly by parents and staff.
Dwight is one of four schools in Connecticut to receive the award for 2012 and one of 269 schools across the nation.
But Dwight almost came close to not being nominated. Brenda Anziano, who had been Dwight's principal through the last school year and is now principal at Riverfield School, recalled getting several phone calls about an award from state education officials.
"You have to be nominated" for a Blue Ribbon award, she said, and the state had tried several times to get in touch with Anziano about completing an application. "I kept saying, `No,' " Anziano said, and when the state official finally got through to her, she said she told him the school wasn't very interested in joining the competition.
"He said, `I don't think your superintendent would be too happy to hear that.' "
And Anziano said she now she is very glad that Dwight did fill out the application and accept the nomination.
"I think the process of the application was kind of a way for us to reflect on our work," Anziano said. Much like the atmosphere at the school, parents and teachers said, the Blue Ribbon application was a collaborative effort.
Teacher Joan Robb is the "wordsmith," according to Anziano, so she wrote up the mission statement. "There were probably 10 of us that completed the application," the principal said. "It's really authentic; we didn't have to make up anything to look good."
What is it that makes Dwight School a Blue Ribbon winner?
"The staff, teachers and administrators put the needs of the whole child first," said Sue Voltz, PTA president, "and the children feel that."
Whelan said parents of Dwight students are made to feel that they are an integral part of the classroom. "There's an openness and I think the parents feel that openness."
Even PTA activities at the school create a cohesive package, dovetailing with classroom lessons and curriculum, according to another parent, Liz Neugebauer. "We're all on the same path," she said.
Programs that parents said help build a community feeling at Dwight include things like an all-school barbeque before the start of the school year and assigning new students "buddies" during the summer so they come to class a bit more comfortable.
Robb said all of the school's staffers are considered teachers -- including secretaries and custodians. "And the children recognize that," said another teacher, Ryan Carroll.
"It's an innovative school," said librarian Kristin Robinson. "We've been encouraged by our leadership to think of new and unique approaches." That leads, she said, to engaged students, teachers and parents.
So does Scott Bannon, Dwight's new principal this year, feel any pressure as he assume the administrative helm of a nationally recognized school? Not at all, he said. In fact, Bannon said he considers it his job is to "take the school to the next level."
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