Marrington Middle one of nation's best

Marrington Middle School of the Arts principal Jim Spencer explains to 8th graders that the school was one of 269 schools named a National Blue Ribbon School. A total of five from South Carolina were named.

Marrington Middle School Principal Jim Spencer was relieved Friday when the school was finally officially named one of the best in the United States.

After the Berkeley County school was named a National Blue Ribbon finalist in January, Spencer, who calls himself a numbers cruncher, had strongly suspected his school would get the award, “but I didn’t dare think about it.”

“The teachers would say, “We haven’t won it yet, but we meet all the requirements. Wink. Wink,” said eighth-grader Daisy Ward.

But that didn’t change the way the school operates, said Gayle Cunningham, also an eighth-grader.

“We just focused more on academics and said let’s just keep doing what we’re doing and stay on track,” she said.

Marrington was one of 269 public and private schools across the nation named National Blue Ribbon Award Winners on Friday by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. It is the first middle school in South Carolina to win the honor in a decade.

As eighth-graders gathered in the media center for the official announcement, Spencer gave credit to his oldest students.

“You eighth-graders have been with us for three years,” Spencer told the students. “You are the biggest contributors to this.”

Three years of school data are considered for the award.

The school learned in January that it was one of five schools in the state nominated by the S.C. Department of Education for the award. The program, run by the U.S. Department of Education, honors public and private schools that are either high-performing or that demonstrate gains in student achievement despite having a high percentage of students with disadvantaged backgrounds.

Marrington qualified on both criteria.

A 400-student, sixth- through eighth-grade school, Marrington has an unusual makeup of students: About 25 percent live in nearby Naval Weapons Station housing, and the rest are identified through Berkeley County’s Special Talent Enrichment Program, its gifted and talented artistic program. To qualify for STEP, students must audition.

In addition, half the students meet the requirements to qualify for free or reduced lunch.

“We really push our students and we make no apologies for it,” Spencer said. “Our expectations are extremely high. We figure as long as we don’t lower our expectations, the students will live up to them.”

Although the school has an arts focus, he said, “We take our passion for the arts and use it to further our academics.”

Other Blue Ribbon winners in the state are Hammond Hill Elementary, Aiken County School District; Forestbrook Elementary, Horry County School District; Oak Grove Elementary, Lexington School District One; and South Kilbourne Elementary, Richland School District One.

South Carolina is allowed to nominate five schools annually.

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or www.facebook.com/brindge.