NEW BUFFALO — The designation of New Buffalo High School as a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence was celebrated during a well-attended Sunday, Nov. 17, open house and ceremony at the facility.

After a mix and mingle period in the commons and cafeteria areas featuring food and beverages, a program on New Buffalo being one of only 55 high schools nation-wide to receive the honor (and of those just 22 are “neighborhood schools”) in the adjacent Performing Arts Center (PAC) was held featuring speakers that included elected representatives, district administrators, teachers, and two recent graduates.

Libby Price and Max Folino, members of the NBHS Class of 2019, spoke of their experiences as Bison via recorded messages from their respective colleges (The University of Michigan and Honors College at at Oakland University).

Price said she was dual enrolled at Purdue Northwest for a semester during her junior year and received six credits. She earned more in AP classes at the school.

“I was able to take 12 credits to Michigan with me. That’s almost one full semester.”

Folino said New Buffalo High School offered many opportunities including the WNBI radio station (which he added “looks great on a resumé) along with everything from band and athletics to Student Senate and a Spanish program that includes trips to Spain.

Both New Buffalo graduates said the educational trust fund scholarship program has been a huge help in attending college.

Price said she heaps to graduate debt-free while Folino noted “without the scholarship I flat out would have struggled.”

About half-way though the program in the PAC, the New Buffalo Area Schools Choir delighted the assembled multitude with its rendition of “Si Si Ni Moja (We Are One).”

Keynote speaker Tina Keller, a New Buffalo High School teacher who was involved in applying for the Blue Ribbon Award, said she and her husband Paul are New Buffalo alums (they met in kindergarten); their three children all have graduated from NBHS (totaling more than 80 college credit hours in high school and each traveling to Spain).

“They were part of district championship teams, received number one ratings in band, were state quiz bowl qualifiers, performed on the stage, and represented the community as kings and a queen.”

Keller said her children also earned more than 300 hours of community work after the district replaced fund-raising with paid community service.

She said the National Blue Ribbon Award is a result of exceptional schools and an exceptional community building success together. She said everyone involved in the district from bus drivers to superintendents have contributed in a systemic manner as the district has gone “from good to great.”

She singled out principals Bob Heit, Adam Bowen, Bill Welling, Ron Hart, Guy Reece, Lindsey Diebolt and Wayne Butler for leading the way “for our successes in the hallways, classrooms, stages, courts, fields and beyond.”

As for the teaching staff (“the group that educates the whole child … physically, intellectually and emotionally”), Keller said she has worked with some of the most compassionate people that she knows.

“At New Buffalo High School we engage students and provide a positive environment that supports the social, emotional and academic growth of all students,” she said, later noting, “Doing what’s best for kids will always be what motivates us and drives us as a faculty.”

She said going one-to-one with technology several years ago allowed for a whole new level of learning and later mentioned other valuable programs offered to pupils including peer-to-peer mentoring.

Keller called the Nov. 17 open house and program “a celebration of all that is excellent about New Buffalo High School and this district.”

New Buffalo High School Principal Wayne Butler brought staff members who wrote the Blue Ribbon submission and those on the School Improvement Team up on stage to accept the National Blue Ribbon School plaque after recognizing all of the teachers in attendance to a rousing ovation.

“Teachers you are the chief tone-setters for the district … in many cases you that one adult that believes in the greatness and possibility of a student. All students deserve at least one adult that believes in them. Teachers, on many days, you fill that role.

“I speak on behalf of everyone when I say you are our glue. Thank you so much,” Butler said.

He said the U.S. Department of Education’s designation of New Buffalo as an “Exemplary Highest-Performing School” in 2019 is “truly a systemic award” reflecting many intentional efforts and decisions in the best interests of students.

Butler noted that there are approximately 108,000 public and private K-12 schools in the United States, and New Buffalo was one of 362 to earn the National Blue Ribbon distinction for 2019 — and one of only 55 high schools so recognized nation-wide.

Butler recognized everyone involved in the day-to-day operations at the school, and also praised the staff members and students who decked the halls and greeted visitors for the Nov. 17 event.

“I think off all the persons who touch students’ days, from the bus drivers in the morning, to the people who make feeding students possible — our cafeteria workers, the people who keep this place in tip-top condition — our maintenance and operations crews, the technology department, also the friendly voices that parents get when they call the school … our secretaries. There are so many supports that make our schools go. Our school board and our superintendent — your vision and your support provide a framework for what we do.”

Frank Magro, representing the New Buffalo Board of Education, congratulated all involved for “the incredible effort that this has taken from elementary teachers to middle school teachers to high school teachers, our support staff, administrators past and present … it’s not just one or two people that raise kids, it’s this type of community and this type of staff, administration, faculty that does the job.”

“This is better than a snow day!” said Congressman Fred Upton. “Everyone is so happy.”

He said the system at New Buffalo “works for all of us.”

“It works for the parents, it works for the students, it works for their careers, and teachers feel so good about what’s happening you can just feel it when you walk in the door,” he said.

Butler gave credit to retired State Sen. Ron Jelinek for helping work out the details of the district’s Bison trust fund (which provides scholarships to NBHS graduates using payment in lieu of taxes funds from the Four Winds Casino).

“This is a big deal,” Jelinek said, noting that he remembers seeing the middle/high school building go up 20 years ago and witnessing “good things happen constantly” in the district.

Retired New Buffalo Superintendent Dr. Michael Lindley said four initiatives contributed “to the success we see today — 1. A Parents as Teachers program offered first in Berrien County in New Buffalo that helped prepare children before they began attending school; 2. Adding preschool and instituting all-day kindergarten (another first in the county program); 3. Becoming one of the first districts in the state to adopt a program called Professional Learning Communities “which came about by studying those schools and districts that hd achieved Blue Ribbon status on multiple occasions.” (He said the program asked four fundamental questions: What is it we expected out students to know and be able to do?; How we measure success; What interventions are needed for those students who have not yet mastered the concepts? And what will we do to enhance the education experience for those students who have already mastered the contest?; 4. Voter approval in 1998 of the bond issue to finance construction of the middle/high school facility. “There’s abundant research that suggests that when you provide a healthy and safe learning environment, achievement goes up.”

He also said cited voter support for building the Performing Arts Center, a separate part of the 1988 bond issue.

“Can you imagine over the last 18 years not having this amazing facility and all the programs that we’ve had here.”

Ultimately, Lindley said a lot of New Buffalo’s success is due to the concept of connectedness.

“We redefined the role of the learner to that of you are responsible for your own learning. We redefined the role of the teacher as a collaborator and facilitator. We implemented a collective commitment for student success.”

Retired New Buffalo Superintendent Mark Westerburg (speaking via a recorded message) said when he came to New Buffalo more than a decade ago he “inherited a wonderful situation from Dr. Lindley — a well-organized school that’s funding was in great shape.”

During his tenure in New Buffalo Westerburg said the elementary was re-wired, the middle school was restructured and the high school went to a trimester schedule which included college classes and college visits.

He said these and other moves helped further develop “a culture of learning and respect where every student had an opportunity.”

State Rep. Brad Paquette (a former teacher in the Niles system) said he understands how great work in education can go unrecognized and can be thankless. He presented a tribute from the State of Michigan “commending this incredible recognition as a National Blue Ribbon School.”

State Sen. Kim LaSata credited teachers for earning the trust of their students and motivating them to achieve great things.

Annie Brown (representing U.S. Sen. Gary C. Peters) stated “Clearly this is a school that puts kids first.”

She said Peters asked her to be sure and tell everyone how proud he is of “everyone in that school building.”

She thanked the parents for keeping spelling lists on the refrigerator door and students for demanding excellence from themselves.

Current New Buffalo Area Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeff Leslie summed it all up by saying “Why are we a Blue Ribbon School? Well we have incredible teachers and staff throughout our district.”

He also cited “the remarkable support that we get from our community,” backing from elected officials, the many offerings available to students, and “awesome parents who send us great kids.”

“This evening is a thank you from New Buffalo Area Schools to all of you. We would not haves received this honor without your years and years of support.”

Cake (decorated with a National Blue Ribbon School logo) and fellowship in the cafeteria rounded out the evening.

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