Established in 1982 by Secretary of Education Terrell Bell, the program first honored only secondary schools, and was expanded to include primary schools. It was then changed again to honor secondary schools and primary schools in alternate years. The program recognized more than 3,000 schools from its inception through 1996, and currently cites nearly 300 schools per year out of 133,000 total K-12 schools, although only those schools that meet the eligibility criteria and submit applications are considered.

Many have won the award multiple times, including four-time winners Catholic High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (88-89, 92-93, 97-98, 03-04), Crocker Middle School in Hillsborough, California (82-83, 88-89, 94-96, 04-05) Spartanburg High School in Spartanburg, South Carolina (82-83, 88-89, 92-93, 97-98), Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois (86-87, 90-91, 97-98, 01-02), Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein, Illinois (84-85, 94-96, 01-02, 07-08), and Holy Names Academy in Seattle, Washington (84-85, 90-91, 94-96, 01-02).

States, territories, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Department of Defense Education Activity schools have joined the competition over the years. Special emphases have changed from year to year based on national priorities.

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