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Draper Journal

Juan Diego honored by U.S. Secretary of Education

Dec 10, 2019 12:23PM ● By Julie Slama

A poster of the school’s most recent accomplishment is proudly displayed in Juan Diego Catholic High School’s office. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

On Nov. 18, when students and faculty return to Juan Diego Catholic High after the weekend, there will be something new at the school — the National Blue Ribbon School Award.

On behalf of the Juan Diego community, Principal Galey Colosimo, Vice Principal John Colosimo and Superintendent of Catholic School for the Diocese of Salt Lake City Mark Longe were to accept the award from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos at the ceremony Nov. 14-15 in National Harbor, Md.

Students were made aware of their success late September at a school-wide assembly.

“It turned into more of pep rally,” Colosimo said. “The kids are proud and know this is a good school, but to be recognized as being competitive and amongst the best in the nation is something for them to cheer about.” 

Juan Diego, which displays a poster in its office, is one of 362 schools in 46 states to be recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School in 2019, and one of only four in Utah. The other state winners include McMillan Elementary in Murray, North Rich Elementary in Laketown and Crimson View Elementary in St. George.

The award is based on a school’s overall academic excellence or progress in closing achievement gaps among student subgroups. National Blue Ribbon Schools demonstrate that all students can achieve to high levels, DeVos said.

In her video message, DeVos applauded the 2019 schools: “We recognize and honor your important work in preparing students for successful careers and meaningful lives. 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.”

Juan Diego, with its top-tier sports, arts, robotics and other extracurricular programs, was named an “exemplary high performing” school. This honor is the first for a Utah high school since 1997, when Judge Memorial Catholic High School in Salt Lake City received the award.

Colosimo said Juan Diego is one of only eight private high schools receiving this award amongst the 20,000 public, private and charter high schools.

“We were nominated as we were one of the top 15% (student achievement in English and mathematics) of all schools in the nation, but that didn’t mean we automatically get the award. We had to compete for it and make a case why our scores are high and how are programs are built to help students receive this level of success,” he said.

One of the programs Colosimo pointed to is the Advanced Placement Capstone program.

“Those are amongst our very brightest students who when they complete the AP Capstone program, have written and defended the equivalent of a college-level master’s thesis and have received high scores in their AP exams,” he said.

Juan Diego was the first high school in Utah to offer the AP Capstone program, introducing it in 2016. Fourteen Juan Diego students have received their AP Capstone diplomas in 2018 and 2019, and there are 17 students on track to graduate in the program this school year.

Another success story is to place two math teachers in every math classroom.

“We learned some students didn’t understand the math, but they were too afraid to raise their hands. As a result, some students fell through the cracks. Now, we have the eyes and ears of a second teacher who can see the level of the student reaction and can stop, explain and re-think the teaching. It’s an effective way of team-teaching and our students understand their assignments. Now, we’re seeing our standardized test scores up,” Colisimo said.

Another non-conventional approach is the school’s reading program where 750 students and faculty alike stop to read for 30 minutes. By having “their nose in a book,” students have learned to become critical readers, built up their stamina, improved fluency and developed a deeper level of concentration, Colosimo said about the initiative that started in 2017.

“Our aim is to prepare our students for college and we want them to acquire the leisure reading to go along with the classics and rigor they will have in a classroom,” he said, adding that of the college freshmen who drop out, 40% say it is because “they can’t handle the reading load and difficulty.”

Colosimo said because of the time the student body and faculty unite in the auditorium to read, it resulted in a positive culture.

“What I didn’t expect was that it has built a sense of community; we’ve created a culture of reading,” he said.

Juan Diego, he said, also supports the students’ social-emotional as well as spiritual growth. A special aspect of this is during January of each student’s senior year when they dedicate service to one of 30 nonprofit agencies in the area, reinforcing the school’s strong emphasis on spiritus donorum, or “spirit of giving.”

“We see a lot of growth and maturity as they learn more about themselves and become leaders by serving those in need in their community,” Colosimo said. 

At the ceremony, 312 public and 50 private schools were to be recognized. In its 37-year history, the National Blue Ribbon Schools program has bestowed this coveted award on more than 9,000 schools.

After the ceremony, Colosimo was hoping to share the award with the entire Skaggs Center campus so St. John the Baptist Elementary and Middle School students could join in the celebration.

“There’s a lot of pride and respect in our community in Catholic education. People value education for their children and this is a really nice milestone in our 20-year history, knowing we’ve reached this level of excellence,” he said. “But don’t think we’re done. We’re recognized as a traditional school, but we are looking ahead and want to be on the cutting line of blended and online learning. It will blur the lines as all learning doesn’t have to happen in a classroom.”

While Colosimo has had talks with Arizona State University, what he calls “the higher education leader in innovation,” they are still identifying the “shape and size” of what education will look like for Juan Diego students.

“We want to continue being forward-thinking and creative, not just stand by for what has been,” Colosimo said. “When there’s a good idea we can implement, it’s every bit as powerful as receiving a national award.”