The Columbia Cougars got a little wild on Tuesday.

At the start of the day, students and staff learned the U.S. Department of Education had selected Columbia Elementary as a national Blue Ribbon School for 2013.

Classroom doors resembled presents, decorated with big blue ribbons.

At a special assembly, Principal Karen Shaw told students to "stand tall, put your head up and your shoulders back, and be proud you're at Columbia," and students roared with excitement.

Soon, they'll all get blue T-shirts, eat a blue-themed breakfast with foods such as blueberry bagels, have a blueberry ice cream party and make an art mosaic.

"I'm still pinching myself and can't really believe it," Shaw said. "When it gets closer to November, and we go to Washington, D.C., to accept the award, it will seem real."

A few years ago, it would have been hard to imagine that Columbia, one of Colorado Springs' oldest schools that opened in 1898, would earn national recognition for excellence.

When Shaw took over as principal in 2008, teachers cited behavior issues as the school's top problem. Standardized test scores were erratic, and Colorado Springs School District 11 sent in a crisis team to help improve academic performance.

This year, in the spring testing cycle of Colorado's TCAP assessment, Columbia had the highest third-grade reading scores among D-11's 33 elementary schools.

Despite the demographic challenges - 70 percent are from impoverished families and a high number qualify as "significantly emotionally disturbed" - the school has risen to "model" status, with other schools now regularly visiting to observe what Columbia is doing.

Shaw credits the "perfect combination of students, staff and parents" working together.

But it also has to do with change.

Shaw sets a good example by building personal relationships with parents and students.

"Staff members know how much I care," Shaw says, adding that she knows almost all of the 280 students' names and individualized learning plans.

She's also a cheerleader.

"We need to bring our best effort and attitude to school every day," she said.

A Cougar behavior code she instituted - Be Respectful, Be Responsible, Be Safe, and Be Kind - is addressed through positive reinforcement.

"Common behavior expectations make a difference," Shaw said. "I try to have a relationship with kids so if they do get into trouble the biggest consequence is they disappoint me."

The school also focuses on perfecting reading skills because Shaw says once students grasp the fundamentals of literacy, they automatically do better in writing, math, science and other subjects.

Students are assessed using various achievement measurements when school starts each fall, then given an intervention plan if they fall short in skills such as fluency, comprehension and vocabulary. For example, for 15 minutes after lunch, students who need to improve fluency go to the computer lab for supplemental lessons.

Teachers use some common instructional strategies to capture students' attention and keep them interested. There are tutors to help stragglers, and student data is continually studied, updated and discussed.

"We have data profiles for each student. It's like a doctor has data on patients," Shaw said.

The U.S. Department of Education's prestigious Blue Ribbon designation recognizes outstanding public and private schools in two categories: "Exemplary High Performing," those among the state's highest performing academically; and "Exemplary Improving," schools that have at least 40 percent of their students from disadvantaged backgrounds and that demonstrate the most progress in improving student achievement. Columbia qualified for the latter, using the past four years of progress.

Columbia is one of five schools in Colorado receiving the 2013 award, which will be presented Nov. 18-19 in Washington, D.C.

In the past 31 years, since the Blue Ribbon program started in 1982, only 18 schools in the Pikes Peak region have received the honor.

It's a big deal, Shaw said.

She plans to take a stuffed cougar with her to the nation's Capitol and photograph it at various monuments and events, so students also can participate in the recognition through their mascot's adventures.

"What led up to this is great stuff," Shaw said. "Like I tell the teachers, we're changing lives every day."