The quality of school lunches is but one component of a school district ranking system employed by the website Niche.

But while Niche, which reviews and ranks districts, colleges, cities and neighborhoods, gave the South Washington County School District high marks overall — academics and extracurriculars included — it was the A+ the district received for its lunches that had it trumpeting the news recently.

According to the 2015 Niche rankings, South Washington County ranked 48th among districts nationwide for the quality of its lunch program, and placed third in the state behind the Minnetonka and Hopkins school districts.

The ratings are based on student and parent surveys, and on district spending, with the greatest weight given to what parents and students have to say.

A Park High senior, for example, noted that while some lunch items at the Cottage Grove school didn’t “tingle my taste buds,” the food was generally delicious and nutritious.

“The new turkey-on-focaccia sandwiches are fantastic and the apples are as juicy as ever,” the student said. “They have lots of different fruits available as well as four different menu options. The lunch ladies are always very sweet, but don’t get enough ‘thank you’s.’ ”

Views were mixed at East Ridge High in Woodbury.

“It’s pretty much what you would expect from a school lunch. There were a few things I liked, but I wouldn’t call it good,” one student said.

But another student who had gone to school in France said that while the pasta was better overseas, “there aren’t any days that I won’t like what I am eating at East Ridge.”

Kathryn Grafsgaard, the district’s nutrition services director, said in a news release that much of the credit for the strong showing “goes to the nutrition services staff at schools who work hard to prepare excellent food, listen to student input and are involved in the menu planning.”

The Niche website is based in Pittsburgh and began in 2002 as CollegeProwler.com. The company’s database contains records for 13,402 school districts. Of those, 3,868 were ranked for the quality of their lunch programs.

South Washington County also received an A+ overall — good for 11th in the state.

The Mahtomedi Public Schools, a high-flyer in most rankings, was ranked 7th in the state overall. But its lunch program received only a B+.

To learn more about Niche’s district rankings, visit www.k12.niche.com/rankings/public-school-districts/best-overall.

Woodbury

Bailey students earn tour for their zoo design skills

Bailey Elementary students put their engineering skills to use for the benefit of sea otters at the Minnesota Zoo — and won a prize in the process.

The trio — Magdalene Dugas, Ellie Lundgren and Kaylin Roban — earned a behind-the-scenes tour of the sea otter exhibit by capturing first place in the first-ever ZooMS Design Challenge, a South Washington County School District news release said.

The students are part of Bailey’s Gateway program, which serves “highly gifted students” in grades 3-5.

Kids were asked to design an object that sea otters could manipulate within their exhibit.

Seventh-graders at Cottage Grove Middle School also took part in a separate design challenge involving the relocation of a pool at the zoo. A team of four students — Michael Cauthorn, Ethan Gonko, Jake Kuemmel and Peyton Tessman — were awarded second place for their efforts.

Stillwater

High school language arts teacher is named finalist

Rachel Steil, a language arts teacher at Stillwater Area High, was one of three local teachers to be named finalists for the annual Minnesota Teacher of the Year award.

Also surviving the cut were Stephen Dombrosk, who teaches world history and religions at North High in North St. Paul, and Lanka Liyanapathiranage, who teaches language arts at Woodbury Middle School.

Education Minnesota, the state teachers union, announced the 10 finalists last week.

The Teacher of the Year is to be named May 3.

Anthony Lonetree