When Ben Ross heard the news, he felt faint.

The graduating Santa Monica High School senior learned last week that he had been selected as one of this year’s U.S. Presidential Scholars in the Arts, a national distinction he’s been eying since ninth grade.

“It’s been my dream for as long as I’ve known about it,” he said. “When I told my parents, there were lots of tears. It was incredible. I’m so honored.”

Ross is part of the 52nd class of the U.S. Presidential Scholars program, which recognizes 160 high school seniors for their accomplishments in academics and the arts as well as career and technical fields. They will be formally honored June 19 in Washington, D.C.

Students are selected for the honor by the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars, which is appointed by President Obama. Ross is one of seven students from California to receive the award, joining Diana Chao (Claremont), Albert Zeng (Cupertino), Pavithra Nagarajan (Fremont), David Bao (Ladera Ranch), Emmit Pert (San Diego) and Ruwanthi Ekanayake (Torrance).

“This year’s class of Presidential Scholars continues a more than 50-year trend of honoring students who’ve shown excellence in their educational, artistic and civic pursuits,” U.S. Secretary of Education John King said in a press release. “Thirty years ago, the program was expanded to include students in the arts, which is critical to providing students with a well-rounded education. Now, we’ve added 20 more slots to honor our highest achieving students in career and technical education, reflecting the Department’s belief that a quality education must be a well-rounded education that prepares students for college, careers and any other civic service.”

Originally created in 1964 to honor academic standouts, the U.S. Presidential Scholars Program was expanded in 1979 to include students who have demonstrated excellence in the visual, literary and performing arts.

As a finalist in the National YoungArts Foundation’s nationwide competition, Ross was chosen from a pool of theater students to be nominated for recognition through the presidential scholars program. He then submitted an application consisting of a long essay, short answers, a letter of recommendation and academic transcripts.

Ross was one of about 60 nominees to the presidential commission by YoungArts, which receives roughly 11,000 applications each year.

Ross, who plans to study drama at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, has an impressive resume in theater and performing arts. This month he was named a finalist in the Music Center’s prestigious Spotlight program, a competitive arts training and scholarship initiative.

The presidential honor, Ross said, doubles as a victory for the high school arts community.

“If you were to go back 50 years, I don’t think you would see the arts at a high school level being recognized on a national scale,” he said. “There is a lot more attention being paid to arts programs at the high school level and recognizing the importance of art on the same level as academic achievements.”

jeff@www.smdp.com