When Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Pat Murphy asked a gym full of kindergartners through fifth-graders how many spent at least 30 minutes a day reading this summer, nearly every hand went up.
Such was a requirement for Arlington Traditional Elementary School's Read for the Gold summer program. And its just one of many contributors to the overall academic excellence the school has achieved.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Arlington Traditional on Friday morning to personally present the students and teachers — and even a few parents — with a 2012 National Blue Ribbon Schools award.
"When I look out here… This is the best of what our country has to offer," Duncan said. "I'm here not just to recognize you, but to learn from you."
Only nine Virginia schools received the award this year, Duncan said. The Education Department recognized 269 public and private schools to receive the award Friday, less than 1 percent of the 100,000-plus nationally.
"We may not pass this way again. But this is a chance to bask in our glory… and it sets the stage for the future of our children," Murphy said, walking amongst the seated students.
"Cherish this for the rest of the year. You guys are great."
Duncan, speaking briefly with reporters, said Arlington Traditional won the Blue Ribbon Award because of a combination of its quality principal and teachers, parental involvement, focus on character as well as academics, and the general diversity of the student population and the language skills they possessed.
"It sounds easy, but it's a lot of hard work," Duncan said. "And there are a lot of building blocks here that other schools can benefit from."
Programs and qualities of Blue Ribbon schools will be collected as best practices that will be shared throughout the country. Duncan said the idea was to get more teachers talking to teachers, principals talking to principals and superintendents talking to superintendents.
U.S. Rep. Jim Moran recounted his days as a grandfather of an Arlington Traditional student, the importance of parents reading to their children before they enter school, and the time he was talked into sitting into a dunking booth for a school festival.
Moran said parents "almost have to sign a contract" to attend Arlington Traditional, which has a lottery system to determine which students are accepted, in order to ensure a high level of parental involvement.
"They were clear about it," Moran said. "And because it was difficult to get into (Arlington Traditional), the parents are prepared."
Arlington Traditional take parents on a detailed orientation before school starts, and students take home a daily assignment notebook, Principal Holly Hawthorn said. Every Friday, students take home weekly reports so parents can see how their children have performed academically, socially and emotionally.
"It's nice to be able to pat on the back the hard-working teachers," Hawthorn said of the Blue Ribbon Award. "It validates what we're doing and drives us to work harder."
She talked about the school's weekly assemblies, requirements that all fourth- and fifth-graders learn to play an instrument and sing in chorus, and the fifth grade "patrol" program, which requires all students in that grade level to take responsibility for the safety of others and promote good citizenship.
"This is not by chance. This is by design," Hawthorn said.
Duncan, Moran and other officials later visited Lorraine Gandy's kindergarten class, where students sang songs about the solar system and the American states, and Donald Martin's fifth-grade class, where students demonstrated robots they had built. The robots had to travel 3 meters on their own, rescue a princess figurine, and return the princess to the student.
Duncan's two children attend Arlington Public Schools.
This is the second time Arlington Traditional has received the Education Department's Blue Ribbon distinction. The first time was in 2004.