Editor’s note: The National Blue Ribbon Schools Program recognizes public and private elementary, middle and high schools based on their overall academic excellence. Every year the U. S.

Department of Education seeks out and celebrates great American schools, schools demonstrating that all students can achieve to high levels. The coveted National Blue Ribbon School award affirms the hard work of students, educators, families and communities in creating safe and welcoming schools where students master challenging and engaging content.

This year, five Iowa schools have received the Blue Ribbon designation: three elementary schools, a middle school and a high school.

Today we feature Grundy Center Middle School in the Grundy Center Community School District. We asked Principal Michael R. Vokes, who has been principal there for six years, his thoughts on becoming a Blue Ribbon School.

School: Grundy Center Middle School, Grundy Center Community School District
Student population: 211
Percent of students in lower socio-economic status: 39.8%
Town: Grundy Center

Were you surprised to be named a Blue Ribbon School? Why?
Absolutely! In general, I was thrilled by the opportunity to publicly recognize our teachers, paraeducators, custodial staff, kitchen staff, bus drivers and others for the relentless hard work they put in day in and day out, both inside and outside the classroom. It genuinely requires a collaborative effort K-12 to effectively educate and nurture our students.

Is your school doing something cutting edge? What is it?
We may not be on the forefront of cutting-edge initiatives, but we place a strong emphasis on a crucial aspect: understanding our students. Our school isn't flawless, but we take pride in the genuine connections we establish with our students. Every day, we challenge our teachers to proactively engage with our students. We are a close-knit community and we benefit from exceptional support for our schools. This support empowers us to truly understand our students — their strengths, their challenges and the best ways to help them achieve their goals.

What other factors would you say contributed to your school’s success?
The Grundy Center community is a special place. Beyond the invaluable community support, our success is also attributed to our dedicated educators who prioritize continuous growth and personal development. They consistently seek out the most effective methods to cater to their students' needs. Our unwavering commitment lies in doing whatever is necessary to ensure our students' needs are met.

Describe your philosophy in delivering a quality education to your students.
My educational philosophy is grounded in a straightforward principle: empowerment. I am a firm believer in empowering both my staff and students. Reflecting on my own educational journey, I recognize the impact of educators who genuinely cared about me — I was motivated to excel for them. I strive to develop a culture that prioritizes relationships above all else. This entails building strong relational capacity between teachers and students, students to teachers and students to students. By nurturing these strong relationships, we equip ourselves to navigate the various challenges and triumphs that unfold over the course of an academic year 

What does this honor mean to you, your team and your community?
While we feel excitement and gratitude for receiving this award, we approach it with a sense of grounded determination and try to take it all in stride. For us, striding means taking deliberate steps in a specific direction, moving forward steadily; we can’t sprint in this line of work. We are honored that our middle school has been chosen as a Blue Ribbon School. This achievement will serve as a lasting reminder of the collaboration, teamwork and dedication (K-12) that led to this recognition. It's a genuine honor that we will cherish for years to come.