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Best in State

Tuesday, W.S. Harlan Elementary School was named one of 314 schools nationwide that were selected as “Blue Ribbon Schools” by the U.S. Department of Education.

The Blue Ribbon Schools Program honors public and private elementary, middle and high schools that are either academically superior or that demonstrate dramatic gains in student achievement to high levels.

The Covington County school, which is located in Lockhart, is one of three Alabama elementary schools recognized statewide. Other winners were Cherokee Bend Elementary School in Mountain Brook and West Elementary School in Cullman. Two Alabama high schools were also named to the list — Vestavia Hills High School in Birmingham and Brewbaker Technical Magnet School in Montgomery.

WSH is being recognized for dramatically improving student performance in the state, while having at least 40 percent of students from “disadvantaged backgrounds” — which for WSH means the 73 percent of students who receive free or reduced lunch.

Principal Brent Zessin said his school’s pathway to success was simple.

“We scored in the top 10 percent in the state in reading and math,” he said. “For us here, we are truly blessed. We are a true hometown school and to be recognized for the hard work is amazing.

“At W.S. Harlan, we have an atmosphere and philosophy of learning,” he said. “We love kids. We have structure and discipline inside our classroom and we teach. That’s it — we just teach.

“We have great teachers and community and parental support,” he said. “When you put all that together, that’s what goes into our school and you see the amazing product when we take in children as kindergartners and turn them out as sixth graders.”

For the past 26 years, the prestigious Blue Ribbon program has honored more than 5,800 of America’s most successful schools.

“These Blue Ribbon Schools are an example of what teachers and students can achieve,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said. “Now our challenge is to help other schools follow their lead by continuing to measure progress through No Child Left Behind, and by using the knowledge we’ve gained to replicate effective strategies and help every student improve.”

In addition to being honored at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., where each school receives a plaque and flag signifying their status, these schools serve as models for other schools throughout the nation.

Zessin said he and interim county superintendent Terry Holley will make the trip to Washington, D.C., but plans are under way to have a community celebration in November.

This is the most recent accomplishment for WSH. It was named as a Torch Bearer school for the 2006-2007 school year and has received $66,000 in the past four years for outstanding test scores. In 2008, it was named as a Top-10 elementary school in the state.