Patricia Brady makes it clear that St. Thomas Aquinas in Fairfield was not an underachieving school when she took over as principal two years ago. She just knew it could be better. Last week, the Department of Education proved her right, naming the school one of its Blue Ribbon Schools for 2010.
"When I came, I found a very, very good school with very, very good teachers and very, very good students," Brady said. "And I saw where it could be excellent."
St. Thomas was one of only 304 schools -- and only 50 private schools – in the nation to be certified Blue Ribbon this year. Its students had to perform in the top 10 percent in both standardized math and reading tests for the school to earn that honor.
Brady focused on improving math scores. She wanted the 400-plus students to hone skills in basic computations -- addition, subtraction, multiplication and division -- through "good, old-fashioned rote and drill." She required each boy and girl in the lower grades to buy his or her own set of flash cards, and each day teachers would set aside time for students to practice.
"If you don't have to spend time on the computing, then you're going to be able to focus more on the concepts," Brady says.
Students said they noticed a change in the school's environment as soon as Brady took over. Maggie Salandra, now an eighth grader and the last of four Salandra children to attend St. Thomas from pre-kindergarten to graduation, said the school became much more disciplined when Brady came on.
"[Brady] listens to the student body and creates structure in a great way that the teachers and the students will learn from," Maggie says.
Robert McCrory, an eighth grader who is president of the student council, said Brady also brought in a balance between hard work and fun. "It's hard to learn if you're just sitting in a classroom all day and having no fun," he says.
Although Brady will head to Washington in November to receive the award, she declines to take the credit. "[I'm] most proud of the students of this school," she says. "It truly is their achievement that brought this award upon us."