National honors are a ‘testament to the entire school community’

Junior kindergarten students at St. Gregory the Great, Virginia Beach, practice fine motor skills by setting interlocking blocks into place. (Photo/Colleen Thompson)

They’re known as the Archangels and the Saints. And as such, they are bound to shine.

On Sept. 19, the U.S. Department of Education recognized Charlottesville Catholic School, Charlottesville, and St. Gregory the Great Catholic School, Virginia Beach, as National Blue Ribbon Schools for 2023.

The schools were two of 353 to win the designation nationwide and 10 in the commonwealth.

“It’s very humbling to be honored this way, but at the same time, it’s a testament to the work of our teachers and staff and to the resilience of our children,” said Joseph Branco, principal of St. Mary Star of the Sea, Hampton, and former principal of St. Gregory the Great, who shepherded the school through the award application process. “It’s a testament to the entire school community.”

“We watched the video announcing the winners the day it was released,” said Vada Fallica, principal of Charlottesville Catholic School, “and when our name came up, we just cheered.”

“We could not have done it without the support of our parents,” she said, “and the support of our area parishes – Church of the Incarnation, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Peter and Paul, and Holy Comforter.”

In a written statement, Bishop Barry C. Knestout applauded the hard work and dedication of both schools.

“I want to offer congratulations to St. Gregory and Charlottesville Catholic Schools for all the work involved in being recognized as a Blue Ribbon School,” he said. “It does elevate in people’s awareness the value of a good, Catholic education and the quality that we are able to offer in our Catholic schools.”

St. Gregory the Great and Charlottesville Catholic will be honored at an awards ceremony in Washington D.C. in November.

‘Faith is the fabric’

“It is a wonderful recognition of the excellent education offered to our students. Each year, a select group of private schools are awarded the Blue Ribbon in the Exemplary High-Performing School category,” explained Jennifer Bigelow, interim superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Richmond.

Charlottesville Catholic School’s fourth graders perform a Passion Play on Holy Thursday, 2023. The school play is an annual tradition, and it always takes place on Holy Thursday morning, before the school’s Easter Break. (Submitted photo)

Schools are classified as ‘Exemplary High Performing’ if their student achievement scores in English and Mathematics rank among the highest in the country – in the top 15% – on nationally normed tests, she said.

Assessments, however, are just the beginning. They qualify a school for nomination, but it takes much more to win the award.

“The application process was extensive,” Fallica said. “You have to show how you are unique.”

Schools must also submit essays describing their school philosophy, culture, and curriculum. Parent and community involvement are also considered.

“For us, our faith forms the fabric of our school,” Fallica said. “The photo that was used in the awards video for our school was of our fourth-grade Passion Play, and I just love that.”

‘The heart of what we do’

Charlottesville Catholic began in 1996 as the dream of a handful of families. Today, the school is a thriving community of 367 students, centering around an 80,000-square-foot campus, with facilities for Archangels athletics and arts and music programs.

During the school’s Days of Service, middle school students venture off campus to serve at local organizations such as Meals on Wheels, Camp Holiday Trails, and Commonwealth Senior Living.

“Service is at the heart of what we do,” Fallica said. “We go out into the Charlottesville area and work in the community.”

The younger students stay on campus and complete their own service projects.

“It’s a beautiful thing, seeing the students put their faith into action,” she said.

Lead like saints

At St. Gregory the Great, it’s the spirit of community that strengthens the 593 students, from pre-K through eighth grade, encouraging them to “lead like saints.”

“Our school is recognized for high standards in education as well as for the fact that our families, communities, administrative and support staff, as well as our instructors, all work together toward common goals,” Kika Glass, principal of St. Gregory the Great, said.

The school’s Saints House Program bolsters that sense of fellowship and camaraderie, Branco said. At the end of fourth grade, students are placed randomly into one of six houses. The houses, each named for a saint, compete in outdoor games and complete service projects as a team.

Older students also form friendships with “prayer buddies” from the lower grades, attending Mass with them and offering encouragement and support.

“It shows that, no matter who you are, you have the opportunity to follow the example set by Jesus,” Branco said.

“Completing the application was a fairly rigorous process,” Branco explained. He said schools are asked to provide overviews of their math, science and world language curriculums, as well as the ways in which they incorporate technology into their classrooms.

Then, they must also take account of the myriad of things that reach beyond the academics – providing opportunities for children to participate, share, grow, and thrive – that sets Blue Ribbon Schools apart.

“We have an onsite therapy dog, for example, who belongs to the guidance counselor. It’s wonderful for the children – and for the adults,” Branco said.

“I love the school. It’s always had a family atmosphere,” Lisa Kasiski, teacher at St. Gregory the Great, said. “My two boys went there, and now they are 24 and 28. I feel the school gave them the foundation in faith that shaped them into who they are today. For that, I’m grateful.”

“We are really proud of everyone: the faculty, the staff, the parents, the students – everyone played a part,” she said.

Faculty and staff at both schools said they look forward to seeing how their Archangels and Saints will lead the way – and light the way – into the future.


Editor’s notes:

U.S. Department of Education announces 2023 Blue Ribbon Schools (

List of 2023 National Blue Ribbon Schools (

Photographs and descriptions of 2023 National Blue Ribbon Schools (


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