It was a blue sort of day at Okatie Elementary School -- but a happy blue.
There were blue balloons and blue ribbons tied everywhere. The lights had a blue tint. There were cupcakes with blue frosting. The students and staff wore blue jeans and blue shirts, and some even had blue streaks in their hair.
"It's a very exciting day for Okatie Elementary," said principal Jamie Pinckney at a celebration ceremony for the school Tuesday morning. "It's our blue day!"
The ceremony and blue theme celebrated being named a 2013 National Blue Ribbon School, one of only five in South Carolina so designated.
The awards were announced Tuesday by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. According to a news release, the U.S. Department of Education considers a Blue Ribbon school a "model of excellence that other schools can emulate. Winners are either academically superior or demonstrate dramatic gains in student achievement."
Winning schools must either:
- Have at least 40 percent of their students from disadvantaged backgrounds and show dramatic improvement in test scores in English and math, or
- achieve in the top 10 percent of schools in the state, regardless of demographics.
When announcing the honor at the ceremony, Beaufort County School District superintendent Jeffrey Moss told the students this was a "really, really big deal."
"I am very proud of the community, the parents, the staff and especially the students," Moss said. "We have wonderful things occurring each and every day in our classrooms, and this brings some recognition to that."
State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais nominated Okatie Elementary for the honor in December.
The school earned an "A" on both the 2012 and 2013 state ratings on federal accountability standards. On its state report card, it has earned both an absolute and a growth rating of "excellent" for the past three years. It also won a Palmetto Gold award from the state last year for overall academic achievement, and a Palmetto Silver award for closing achievement gaps among students.
Beaufort County has had one Blue Ribbon school since the award began in 1982. Beaufort Elementary School won in 1999.
Pinckney told the students the award was like winning the Super Bowl for schools, which prompted lots of cheers and clapping from students.
"I'm ecstatic -- this is what we all strive to achieve," Pinckney said. "I never believed we would be a Blue Ribbon school."
Christine Jackson, who teaches English for speakers of other languages, said she was floored by the news.
"The school itself deserves the honor; it's an incredible honor, but it's amazing they recognized this," Jackson said. "We feel very grateful and want to let the community know the school and our school system are incredible."
Pinckney said the school's faculty and staff are happy to share with others in the district and state what the school does to achieve success.
The other South Carolina winners are Mayo High School for Math, Science and Technology in the Darlington County School District; Flowertown Elementary in Dorchester School District 2; Ware Shoals Elementary in Greenwood School District 51; and New Prospect Elementary in Spartanburg School District 1.
All five schools consist of 50 percent or more students from disadvantaged backgrounds, according to a news release from the S.C. Department of Education.
The 286 national winners will receive Blue Ribbon School flags and plaques at award ceremonies Nov. 18 and 19 in Washington, D.C.
"I can't wait to see that next blue banner go up for this great school," Moss said.
Follow reporter Sarah Bowman at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.