Horseshoe Trails Elementary School Principal Aaron Pettinato

Horseshoe Trails Elementary School Principal Aaron Pettinato reads to a class of students. The school was recently named a 2020 National Blue Ribbon School.

Horseshoe Trails Principal Aaron Pettinato feels the elementary school’s recognition as a 2020 National Blue Ribbon School was 16 years in the making.

The award is a morale boost in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, reaffirming the hard work of many, he said.

“This news could not have come at a better time for our school and district and, most importantly, our students and staff, just with how hard everyone has been working since really March—with crisis schooling, distance learning and now that we’re back in the building for in-person instruction,” Pettinato said. “These teachers, this award belongs to them as well as the students and families of our school.”

Horseshoe Trails, in the Cave Creek Unified School District, is one of five Arizona schools to be honored by the Department of Education this year—announced by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. A ceremony will be held virtually on November 12 and November 13, honoring 317 public and 50 nonpublic schools. Plaques and flags will be sent by mail.

The National Blue Ribbon Schools Program has recognized more 9,000 schools with nearly 10,000 awards over 38 years. Schools are eligible after five years, with up to 420 nominated each year by the top education officials in all states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, the Department of Defense Education Activity and the Bureau of Indian Education. Private schools are nominated by the Council for American Private Education.

There are two performance categories: Exemplary High Performing Schools, which perform among the highest on state assessments or nationally normed tests, and Exemplary Achievement Gap Closing Schools, which perform among the highest in closing achievement gaps.

Horseshoe Trails is an Exemplary High Performing School.

Staff personalizes learning, Pettinato noted when asked what the school is doing to foster achievement.

“What that means is that our teachers use best practices in the classroom for the implementation of personalized learning, flexible grouping of students, and differentiated instruction,” he explained. “And so what that looks like is, during math and literacy blocks, students rotate through stations, or they have a menu of activities and/or tasks that are differentiated to meet the needs of individual learners. So, our teachers practice natural reteaching of content to students who may struggle with the mastery of a concept.”

And data-driven decision making is “at the heart of everything,” he said.

“We gather data quite frequently from our students that informs basically what we do in the classroom, so we get to know their personal interests and backgrounds as well as their academic strengths and preferred approaches to learning,” he said. “The data collected basically informs our instructional decisions and groupings and makes targeted instruction possible in the classroom.”

Pettinato attributes consistency in teachers, with little turnover, as one of the main reasons for Horseshoe Trails’ recognition.

“We’ve got a veteran staff with very little turnover, they’re very experienced, responsive to student needs, and they just work extremely well with one another, whether they’re collaborating vertically or horizontally,” he said. “It’s a combination of just us really going the extra effort to personalize instruction, to meet the needs of all learners where they are, as well as just the fact that it kind of sets our school up for success when I don’t have to hire a bunch of new teachers each and every year.”

He feels he “has the best staff in the world.”

“I know most principals say this—it’s a cliché statement—but we really are like a family here at Horseshoe Trails. I think if you talk to students and families and teachers, that would be one of the first things to come out of their mouth as well.”

For more information on the National Blue Ribbon Schools Program, visit