BRANDON — Ask Robert Rudolph about his state of mind, and he confesses that his head still spins.
In September, Rudolph learned his school, Brandon Academy, is one of the top 50 private schools in the nation. The academy, where Rudolph serves as head of schools, earned the distinction after Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education, named it a National Blue Ribbon School.
Representatives from the schools — 254 public and 50 private — will travel to an awards ceremony Nov. 15-16 in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the honor. In the past 28 years, more than 6,000 of America's schools have received this award.
The last time a Hillsborough County school received the designation was in 2008 when Bevis Elementary School in FishHawk Ranch won the award.
"It's the highest achievement a school can receive," Rudolph said. "The kids are very excited."
On a recent visit to the campus, several students sported T-shirts proclaiming the school's blue-ribbon status. Congratulatory banners hang around the school grounds.
"I think it's wonderful news," said Michelle Ayers, the school's parent-teacher organization president. Ayers' three sons, twin 8-year-olds and a 10-year-old, have been attending Brandon Academy since preschool. "It's a credit to the teachers who are responsible for helping the kids achieve this goal."
Duncan's announcement didn't come as a surprise to Rudolph and his staff, who oversee 227 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade. He learned in January that Brandon Academy was among the 50 private schools nationwide nominated by the Council for American Private Education to receive the award.
As word of the award spread throughout the community, the school experienced a 12 percent increase in enrollment this year, despite a dour economy, Rudolph said.
Private schools that receive the award must score in the top 10 percent on standardized testing for five consecutive years. They also must offer "extraordinary educational opportunities," Rudolph said.
"In our case, we offer cutting-edge technology such as the Smart Board, an interactive computer system," Rudolph said. "And we offer field trips to places like Spain, Greece, Gettysburg and the Florida Keys."
The criteria are different for public schools. They need to be ranked among the state's highest performing schools, as measured by performance on state assessments, or they need to be schools with at least 40 percent of their students from disadvantaged backgrounds that improve student performance on state assessments or nationally normed tests.
Brandon Academy was one of three private schools in the state to earn the honor this year. The other schools are: Christ the King Catholic School in Jacksonville and St. Cecelia Interparochial School in Clearwater. Public schools earning the honor were: Avalon Elementary School in Orlando, Mater Academy East Charter School in Miami, Ocean Breeze Elementary School in Indian Harbour Beach and Virginia Shuman Young Elementary School in Fort Lauderdale.
D'Ann White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.