The staff and students at the Vilonia Middle School were told Tuesday, at an Arkansas Diamond Schools to Watch award ceremony, they have "stepped out onto the national stage" regarding education standards.

The event began at 10 a.m. and lasted almost two hours with more than 1,100 in attendance including nearly 800 students. Although it was held in the Vilonia High School gymnasium, it was an exclusive middle school event.

"You have put Vilonia on the map. I hope you realize this is a momentous occasion and enjoy every moment," said Dr. Mona Briggs, a representative of the Diamond Schools to Watch program, addressing the VMS students and staff.

The honor, Briggs explained, is part of a program began by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform, founded in 1997 and comprised of an alliance of more than 81 national associations, foundations, researchers and educators. The National Forum identifies high-performing middle schools and highlights their achievements so other schools might benefit from their example.

VMS, Briggs said, is one of the 13 schools in Arkansas named as Diamond Schools to Watch. Only three, including VMS, were named in the state for 2013. Achieving the accomplishment, Briggs said, was labor intensive with several factors taken into consideration, including academic excellence, developmentally responsive, socially equitable and an infrastructure that promotes teaming and "a sense of belonging. "

The staff and students at VMS have a "passionate desire and a can-do attitude," she said. "Today you have stepped out onto the national stage and joined an elite group of teachers and students who are passionate about teaching and learning."

Charles Green, also a representative of the Diamond Schools to Watch, presented a plaque to Cathy Riggins, VMS principal. His comments seemed to be aimed more at the classroom teachers saying having a "can-do" attitude, is what it takes to make the difference in schools.

"That is what is in the schools that make the difference," he added. Dedicated teachers "where the rubber meets the road — in the classroom," is what matters, as well as a strong support system, including encouraging school administrators and a caring Board of Education.

Accepting the award on behalf of the school, Riggins said it is the goal of the VMS to focus on the needs of every student, sometimes looking outside the box for solutions.

"We are proud to serve as a model for other schools in the state and nation," she said, inviting those in attendance to celebrate.

When speakers weren’t on stage, the air was filled with music including the tune of "Celebration." Banners lined the walls denoting the different teams in the schools. Names such as Eagle Café Country, Sixth Grade VMS Thunder, VMS FCCLA, Vast Village and Library Crew were on them.

Student Heather Gonzales sang the National Anthem. The VMS seventh grade cheerleaders performed. The seventh grade band played.

Serving as the emcee, Riggins handed out awards to many at the school including teachers, office personnel, cafeteria workers, the custodian, the school nurse, coaches, music teachers, classroom aids and assistant principal Rodney Partee. Students clapped, cheered and bestowed standing ovations.

Riggins also recognized a "special member" of the team teacher Beverly McGuire who lost her battle with cancer last year but worked toward the achievement. McGuire had a passion for VMS and excellent education, Riggins said.

"She was part of this award," Riggins said. On that note, Riggins asked McGuire’s mother and sisters, who were in the audience, to stand in her honor. The women, Riggins said, drove from Hope for the ceremony.

Dr. Frank Mitchell, Vilonia School superintendent, was also a speaker. He joined the speakers before him in touting the praises of Riggins for her leadership, and the staff and students for the parts they played in the achievement. One of the things he has learned, in his position, he said, is to " stand back, stay out of the way and let good people do a good job. "

"This is something important to know, the recognition today is a voluntary effort. This is something Mrs. Riggins and the staff at the Middle School didn’t have to do," he said. "They wanted to do this. And, we are proud of them for doing it."

He talked briefly about the importance of public schools and the missions mandated, including to be responsible for the education of every child—rich or poor.

"We are proud to serve every student in our district," he said.

Riggins ended the ceremony recognizing audience members referring to them as "stakeholders," which she defined as parents, business owners, politicians and peers. Looking into the bleachers, Riggins said, she is a Vilonia Eagle and has been proud of being one since she was a small child. She also said she is humbled to work in the school district serving the community she loves and will strive for the school to continue to achieve accolades.

"It’s a great day to be part of VMS," she concluded. After the ceremony, teachers were provided lunch while volunteers manned the cafeteria.