University High School, a Title I high school in Tolleson, was the only Arizona high school to receive a National Blue Ribbon prize from the U.S. Department of Education this year.

University High School, a small school with 16 full-time teachers located on the Tolleson High School campus, was one of five Arizona schools to receive the national award in 2021.

Principal Vickie Landis applied for consideration in early 2021 after the Arizona Department of Education reached out, wondering if Landis had considered submitting an application for the award.

“As a new leader, I knew the school was doing great things … and it just seemed like the right thing to do to celebrate all the good work that’s happening,” Landis said.

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The National Blue Ribbon program has three award categories for different types of educational excellence. University High received the “Exemplary High Performing” classification, which recognizes the schools with the top graduation rates and assessment scores per state.

According to Landis, all but one student who graduated in 2021 enrolled in college for the following school year, and 96% of 2020 graduates who attended college enrolled in a second year.

William Bustraan graduated from University High in 2020 and is currently in his second year at Arizona State University. He said that the dedication of the teaching team helped him most throughout his time at University High.

Bustraan remembers being assigned a project in his ninth grade AP Human Geography class in which he and his classmates created a habitat for owls in the area, and another in his 12th grade English class where he wrote about how Shakespeare’s Macbeth mirrored his journey into young adulthood.

“They really do put in a lot more effort,” Bustraan said. “Each of them, each put in the time outside of class … they step outside of that kind of normal boundary of where a teacher just interacts with you for one hour.”

Of the 325 schools awarded the National Blue Ribbon this year, 46% qualified for Title I funding, an increase of 12% from 2014.

Title I provides federal financial assistance to schools and districts with large populations of low-income students for support programs, such as Tolleson Union High School District’s Title I Reading Program, which helps students who are reading below their grade level to improve literacy with individualized instruction and supplemental tutoring.

University High teachers Natasha White and Michelle Burns attribute the increase in representation of Title I schools in the National Blue Ribbon program to the support that teachers and schools are giving to students.

“Over the years, more teachers who are seeing the struggles, who are understanding the struggles, are advocating for these kids and saying, here’s what we need. We are asking … our district offices to, you know, fulfill some requirements and expectations,” White said.

Burns said that she hopes teachers who interact with many low-income students push them to reach their full potential and support them in overcoming academic adversity.

Alum Brianna Gonzales said she remembers teachers sharing financial aid resources and encouraging students to apply for every financial aid opportunity they encounter, which helps students afford Advanced Placement exams and dual enrollment classes.

“They were always telling us about different things we can do to help us get into, like, colleges;  they always, like, helped us reach out to the colleges directly. And they were pretty good about … always motivating us to stay involved in those things and participate,” Gonzales said.

In addition to motivating students to succeed, Bustraan said that University High teachers nurture their students and understand when personal responsibilities are overshadowing school responsibilities. This is very helpful to low-income students who may need to help financially support their family with an after-school job, according to Bustraan.

Teacher Susan Renner said she believes that creating meaningful relationships with students is the key to their success.

I am vulnerable, honest, and upfront with my students about my trials and struggles in life.  Sharing my own story helps them see, that I am not perfect. Providing a safe and healthy environment will cultivate learning,” Renner said in an email.

The National Blue Ribbon Award Ceremony is being held in Washington, D.C. on November 4-5, and two representatives from each winning school are invited to attend. Renner will be attending as one representative and says she is “beyond excited.”

Our students and staff work diligently and spend countless hours working to make University High successful,” Renner said.

According to Landis, University High School is currently enrolling incoming freshmen for the 2022-2023 school year. Those interested in applying can visit for more information.