Wildwood High School Principal Chris Armstrong likes to view his district not as having problems, but as having opportunities for growth.

That positive outlook has paid off for the school, which on Tuesday was one of 15 schools in New Jersey named a 2013 National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education.

The school was recognized in the “Exemplary Improving” category. That is defined as schools with at least 40 percent of students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds who are among the top 10 percent of schools in their state showing improvement in student test scores. Two other New Jersey high schools, Harrison and Dover, also received that designation.

Statewide, nine public and six private schools received the Blue Ribbon designation this year. Six of the public schools are county vocational high school academy programs. Schools are nominated by the state education commissioner, then must complete an application process to be considered.

Armstrong said staff at Wildwood High School have been working on a cohort of issues, including test scores, attendance, and dropout and graduation rates. The Blue Ribbon program looks at cumulative progress over five years.

“It is great to be recognized for the hard work,” he said. “It’s nice when someone outside the district recognizes the progress we are making.”

The is still a lot of work to do. According to its 2012 state School Performance Report, the school ranks about average among similar high schools, and is in the bottom 25 percent of high schools statewide. But it is improving.

In 2011-12 the high school had a passing rate of 73 percent on the state language arts test, exceeding its target rate of 69 percent. In math, the passing rate was 62 percent, exceeding the target rate of 58 percent.

The high school had a graduation rate of 81 percent in 2012, exceeding the statewide target rate of 75 percent. Its dropout rate was 1.4 percent, less than the target rate of 2 percent.

Almost 80 percent of the 254 students at the high school are considered economically disadvantaged, and almost 11 percent have limited English proficiency. Almost one of every three students has some type of disability.

Armstrong said the improvement is part of a district wide plan that begins at the preschool level and includes getting parents more involved in their children’s education.

“We have a lot of targeted approaches that recognize students may need interventions for issues both in and outside the classroom,” he said.

He said the school also has a comprehensive program for non-native English speakers that includes sheltered math and English classes to provide instruction in the native language so that students do not fall behind on their academic work.

Frank Belluscio, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said the award gives all districts the opportunity to learn from the schools honored. He said closing the achievement gap is a major focus of NJSBA this year, so they are particularly interested in identifying strategies that are working in the state’s three Blue Ribbon Improving Schools.

Contact Diane D'Amico:

609-272-7241

Senior copy editor for the Press of Atlantic City. Have worked as a reporter, copy editor and news editor with the paper since 1985. A graduate of the University of Delaware.