Vestavia Hills High Wins ‘Triple Crown’ of Awards
By Laura McAlister
Awards and honors are nothing unusual for many over the mountain schools. The systems earn top state rankings year after year and frequently appear on lists of the best schools in the nation.
What is rare, though, is for one school to get three top honors in one year, which is what Vestavia Hills High School recently accomplished. For the first time in the school’s history, VHHS was named a Blue Ribbon School, one of the nation’s top high schools by Newsweek and a silver medal school by U.S. News & World Report, all in the same school year.
“I call this the Triple Crown for the high school,” said Cindy Adams, director of curriculum and instruction for Vestavia Hills city schools. “It’s really a great honor, and I don’t think the high school stands alone. This is really a collaborate effort of all the schools. We tend to cheer each other on. We want everybody to excel.”
The Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report rankings are based largely on students taking advanced placement, college-level courses and tests, while the Blue Ribbon award is much more comprehensive.
This year, about 1,600 schools — roughly 6 percent of the nation’s public schools — made the Newsweek list, and about 1,700 were selected for the U.S. News and World Report list.
Only 314 schools nationwide received the Blue Ribbon award. In addition to Vestavia Hills High School, Mountain Brook’s Cherokee Bend Elementary also was designated a Blue Ribbon School.
This is the second time VHHS has been named a Blue Ribbon School. The last time it received the honor was in 1991.
“We’re real excited about that,” said Cas McWaters, VHHS principal. “Vestavia has a unique school environment. There’s something special about it.”
It’s that unique environment, McWaters believes, that earned VHHS the Blue Ribbon School distinction.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, Blue Ribbon Schools are the top performers in their state regardless of student background. They have high academic standards and meet and exceed those standards.
During the application process, McWaters said, the department of education questioned VHHS’s application.
“We had charitable fundraising as part of the curriculum,” he said. “They thought that was a mistake – it should be extracurricular.”
It wasn’t a mistake, though, McWaters said. A key part of the high school’s mission statement is community service, or what McWaters likes to refer to as “the Rebel Edge.” It is a concept developed by the school years ago that emphasizes not just academics but also giving back to the community.
“We want excellence at all times,” McWaters said.
The concept has taken root in the school. Ninety-four percent of all students participate in community-focused clubs that meet during the school day.
“A lot of schools don’t do that anymore. They put it outside the school day, but I think that de-emphasizes the importance of service organizations,” McWaters said. “I think it should be in the school just like math, science and English.”
In one school year, Vestavia High students raised more than $200,000 for charities, and many students clocked more than 100 community service hours. The school also has a Habitat for Humanity chapter that has funded and built one house each year since forming at the school.
In addition to community service, VHHS also emphasizes respect for others. The school conducts heritage panels that teach and promote an atmosphere of respect, as well as recognize “random acts of kindness,” McWaters said.
He said one of the goals of the school is to not just teach students to be “global learners, but global participants in the community.” Throughout the summer, he said, faculty and staff have been looking at ways to improve upon that goal.
“We’re going to always be tweaking things, and identifying what works and what doesn’t,” he said. “One of the things I don’t want to happen is people to think if we don’t make this or that list, that we’re not still doing what we should be.
“If there’s any negative about us, it’s that we don’t toot our own horn enough. Like I said, we just have a very unique school environment.”