Minutes before the final bell sounded Friday, Principal Herman Brister Jr. stood before a hastily called assembly in McKinley Middle Magnet School auditorium and said he had some news: The school had just been named a 2012 National Blue Ribbon School.
“This means that you’re among the best in the entire nation,” Brister said to ecstatic cheers from the school’s more than 700 students and almost 60 faculty and staff.
Brister learned the news earlier that day in a news release from the U.S. Department of Education. The federal agency bestows the award every year on schools that are either very high performing or have shown significant improvement with challenging student bodies.
McKinley Middle is one of five schools in Louisiana, all of them public, and one of 269 nationwide being recognized. The 219 public and 50 private schools will be honored at a recognition ceremony Nov. 12 and 13 in Washington, D.C.
Nine schools in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system have earned a Blue Ribbon since the federal government created the program in 1982. McKinley, along with Baton Rouge Magnet High, are the school system’s only repeat winners.
For McKinley, Friday’s honor represents a return of sorts to former academic glory. The school won its first Blue Ribbon in 1984, soon after it was first converted from a neighborhood school to a selective magnet school.
That 1984 plaque hangs on the wall of Brister’s office as a motivation, prodding him to strive to win another one.
“I hate to look at it,” Brister admitted. “So now, I can finally take it down.”
In the late 1990s, McKinley Middle was the subject of an experiment. The school regained an attendance zone. The magnet program remained, albeit smaller, just a part of the middle school. The program’s quality, however, declined and enrollment dwindled.
In 2003, in a bid to revive the school’s reputation, the school system agreed to convert McKinley back into a dedicated, or schoolwide, magnet. It was one of four new dedicated magnet schools created as part of the final settlement of the parish’s long-running desegregation, which went for 51 years before finally concluding in 2007.
It took awhile for the new McKinley Middle to come into its own. It’s the last of the four dedicated magnet schools created in that settlement to achieve the honor.
The school has shown steady growth over that time. In 2007, its school performance score was 101.2. By 2011, it had grown to 115, earning the school a “B+” under Louisiana’s new letter grade system. When the next batch of school performance scores are released in October, Brister said he expects that his school will finally earn an “A” grade.
“After this one, we’re gonna get there,” he said.
The return to glory was boosted in 2006 when the school moved into a brand new, completely rebuilt campus at 1550 Eddie Robinson Drive. The modern school features state-of-the art visual and performing arts spaces, a key draw for the middle school.
The Blue Ribbon honor will make the school only more popular, Brister said.
“We have a waiting list a mile long,” he said. “It’s going to get longer.”
Still the school has not achieved the racial integration of other magnet schools in town. On Friday, its population was about 86 percent black. Also, about 75 percent of the students qualify for free lunch or reduced-price lunches, an indicator of poverty.
Brister attributes the school’s success to its family atmosphere.
“Everybody is willing to go the extra mile, and to make the right decisions for kids,” he said. “I know that can be difficult sometimes.”
The success of McKinley Middle also raises the stakes in Brister’s biological family.
His mother, Darlene, won a Blue Ribbon in 2009 while principal of Ryan Elementary. Brister’s father, Herman Brister Sr., is a former principal, and is now an associate superintendent for the school system, but never won a Blue Ribbon himself.
The elder Brister was on hand at the school assembly and had a big smile on his face. His hopes now rest on his daughter-in-law, Jessica Brister, principal of Park Elementary, in Baton Rouge, to continue the family tradition.
“It’s on, it’s on,” said the father.
The four other Louisiana public schools that learned they are Blue Ribbon schools Friday are Claiborne Fundamental Elementary Magnet in Shreveport; Gretna No. 2 Academy for Advanced Studies in Gretna; Oak Park Microsociety Elementary in Shreveport; and T.S. Cooley Elementary Magnet in Lake Charles.