'That's like the Oscars': Palatine junior high among new Blue Ribbon winners

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker visited Palatine's Walter R. Sundling Junior High School on Tuesday to personally congratulate students and staffers on being named a National Blue Ribbon School.

The school is one of 18 in the state — and one of 325 nationally — tapped for the honor, which Cardona compared to winning an Oscar.

“The whole Sundling family should be proud,” Cardona said during a news conference outside the school.

Other 2021 Blue Ribbon honorees include Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein, Prince of Peace School in Lake Villa, Maple School in Northbrook; Butler Junior High in Oak Brook, Hinsdale Central High in Hinsdale, Westmont High in Westmont and Lincoln Middle in Park Ridge.

Carmel also won the prize in 1985, 1996, 2002 and 2007. According to the school, Carmel is one of only six high schools in the nation to accomplish that feat.

“For the fifth time in school history, our school has been honored with this coveted award, which affirms the hard work of our students, faculty, staff and entire school community,” Carmel President Brad Bonham said in a prepared statement. “As a faith-based community, we find ourselves fortunate to have such blessings.”

The Education Department's Blue Ribbon program recognizes a school's overall academic performance or progress in closing achievement gaps.

In a statement on the Butler School District 53 website, Superintendent Paul O'Malley noted the prize for Butler Junior High also reflects how the district was innovative despite the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic “and remained focused on individualized student achievement.”

In his remarks Tuesday at Sundling Junior High, Pritzker spoke of how that school's community has adapted to the pandemic. He praised Sundling for its student wellness efforts and other programs.

“Mr. Secretary, you couldn't pick a better host for today's announcement,” Pritzker told Cardona from the lectern.

Principal Jason Dietz spoke after Pritzker, telling the audience of Sundling's dedicated teachers, parents, students and other community members.

“We would not be where we are today without everyone working together as a team,” Dietz said.

Cardona announced the latest crop of Blue Ribbon winners at Sundling as part of a Midwest bus tour dubbed the Return to School Road Trip. He noted how the pandemic took away band practices, theater performances, in-person learning and other traditional aspects of the school experience.

Cardona pushed students “to be unapologetically you” and to try clubs and activities that pique their interests.

He also urged students to wear masks, get vaccinated against COVID-19 and encourage others to get vaccinated.

Tour stops in Cicero and Chicago were scheduled for later in the day. The rest of the week will see stops in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan.

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  U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, right, congratulates the students and staff at Walter R. Sundling Junior High School in Palatine for being named a National Blue Ribbon School. "That's like the Oscars," he said. Russell Lissau/
  Gov. J.B. Pritzker talks Tuesday about the challenges students and teachers have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic at Walter R. Sundling Junior High School. He was there because Sundling was named a National Blue Ribbon School. Russell Lissau/
  Principal Jason Dietz, center, talks with Gov. J.B Pritzker, right, during a ceremony Tuesday at Walter R. Sundling Junior High School in Palatine. Sundling was named a National Blue Ribbon School. Russell Lissau/
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