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Appalachian Scene: Flying the Blue Ribbon Flag

by Lynda McDaniel

Just below the U.S. and Alabama flags flying over Guntersville Elementary School, another red, white, and blue flag ripples in the morning breeze. It, too, stands for hard-won rights and equal opportunities for all who live under its banner. Never mind that most of its constituents are barely three feet tall—that only made hundreds of teachers, parents, politicians, and business leaders work harder to earn this coveted flag of the U.S. Department of Education's Blue Ribbon Schools Program, a national campaign to improve education in America through the recognition of educational excellence and equity.

When the National Review Panel, a group of approximately 100 public- and private-school educators, awarded the school its Blue Ribbon status in May 1999, they considered such criteria as the number and variety of creative programs for students and parents, the quality of the curriculum, and the stunning results of innovative projects such as Parents and Teachers Helping Students (PATHS). No doubt they were also impressed by the school, family, and community partnerships that make possible programs such as Reading Buddies and Special Friends, as well as a wealth of year-round activities to give these young learners a strong start.

"It takes a lot of dedication," says Margaret Daniel, principal of Guntersville Elementary. "It takes everyone—the school, the city, the parents, the community—working in the same direction. We feel that is what makes us so successful."

Daniel heads a faculty and staff of about 50 that serves 500 students in pre-kindergarten through second grade. They start each day on a wooded, six-acre campus high above the crystal blue waters of Lake Guntersville. The expansive view outside mirrors the long-reaching vision inside, where, in addition to a progressive curriculum, programs such as weekly and monthly newsletters to keep parents informed, a video explaining special education services and practices, and opportunities for parent involvement in everything from textbook selections to safety guidelines create an environment in which children thrive.

"We believe that everyone is gifted in something," says Janet Iwankovitsch, a speech-language pathologist for the Guntersville City School System. "We have the opportunity to foster every child's giftedness, whether that's artistic, academic, or dramatic talents, or interactive people skills. Our mission is to open these children's eyes, light their fires, and let them run with it."

PATHS to Success

It's never too early to start. Each year for the past four years, 30 at-risk four-year-olds have participated in PATHS, a program designed to encourage their long-term success in school. Two teachers with degrees in early childhood education and two aides prepare the children academically and socially for kindergarten. Due to the popularity of the program, PATHS outgrew its quarters at the elementary school and moved two miles away to a renovated school building.

"When they come to us, some of these children have never had the experience of holding a pencil or crayon, and no one has ever read to them," explains Jeannie Wallace, community education director for the Guntersville City School System. "We also can detect any hearing, sight, or other problems we need to address."

The real focus of PATHS, though, is the family. Parents sign an agreement when they register their children that they will attend every semi-monthly parent meeting. If they miss one, their child is suspended until they resume their participation, though this happens only about once a year. "Word spreads. Quickly," Wallace adds with a chuckle.

"And we try to make the meetings fun," she continues. "We want to erase their fear of school. Many times these parents were not successful in school, so they have a built-in fear of teachers and school. We teach them how to teach their children the correct way to do handwriting, how to read to their children, and how they can use McDonald's or Food World signs, for example, as teaching tools when they are driving down the street. We let them know they are the most important teacher in their children's lives."

The teachers here work long hours; many days start at 7:00 A.M. and don't wind down until 5:30 P.M. On their way home, they often make home visits or help a child in need. It's a friendly town (one parent compared it to the mythical Mayberry) where a helping hand is never far away.

"If a child's house has burned, we all head out and work on that," Daniel says. "We might go with them to food pantries or clothes closets. We know places in the community where we can get these things done."

Over the past ten years, they have redoubled their efforts to meet cultural shifts as parents increasingly work on different schedules. Meetings and workshops, for example, are set in the afternoons and evenings, and child care is provided. Creative workshops, such as the popular "Make and Take" sessions organized by the PTO, run throughout the year.

"At the end of our school year, each grade prepares a seminar to train parents how to better teach their children," explains Lou Ann Woodard, president of the PTO and mother of a first-grader. "In my group, we made a math game. It was simple and fun, and teachers gave us helpful hints on teaching our children. We can say 'two plus two is four' all day long, and we understand it, but that doesn't mean a six-year-old does."

Computers also have generated change. Woodard marvels at how first-graders can accomplish things that she didn't do until high school. "It's a fast-paced world," she continues. "Things have gotten so much more sophisticated, so we have to be more sophisticated in our approach."

That's the thinking behind the popular Extended Day Program, which serves four-year-olds through second-graders after school until 5:30 P.M., under the guidance of certified teachers.

"We work very closely with the classroom teachers because the heart of our program is to see that they get their homework done and that they get it done correctly," adds Wallace, who also directs this program. After 4:00 P.M., students take part in a variety of activities, from arts and crafts to handwriting and journal keeping. The program is paid for with fees from the families involved; these funds are supplemented by federal grants and the generosity of the city and private individuals, to pay for children who otherwise could not afford to attend.

Extended Day runs throughout the summer as well, operating 12 hours a day in two shifts. Organized reading programs, arts and crafts workshops, and field trips to museums and parks in the state are part of the summertime curriculum.

There's little chance the Blue Ribbon flag would be flying today without the army of volunteers who contribute services well beyond those budgeted. Gold Kist, the largest employer in town, and other factories allow parents time off to volunteer. Individual professionals ranging from lawyers to firefighters also share their expertise. Recently, a banker brought an assortment of play money, deposit slips, envelopes, and prizes to give first-graders an educational hands-on activity that related to a current area of study.

The city government—from its strong school board to a supportive mayor—contributes funding, ideas, support, and manpower. "If we need something, our mayor, James Townson, helps us out when he can," Daniel adds. "I'll call and say we need some flowers around the flagpole, and if I can get the money to buy the pansies, he'll send his men to put them in."

Retirees and grandparents join with professionals and parents to organize events, tutor children, judge myriad contests, and decorate hallways and bulletin boards with colorful cutouts spotlighting children's pictures. Lewis Stewart started volunteering in 1995 one day a week and has gradually worked up to five days a week in the Media Center.

"I love to be around kids," he says, "but what really sold me on this was one day at the drugstore a little boy came running to me, calling my name and hugging my neck. You can tell the kids who don't have a father at home. They really need you."

Dianne Walker also volunteers in the Media Center, helping children read, finding something in a book, or just being a friend. "A lot of children don't get what they need sometimes. I understand. It's hard. Parents are busy; some are working two jobs just to survive. So we try to fill in and give them whatever support we can."

The motto here is healthy mind and body, and Guntersville Elementary boasts yet another distinction, for its vital physical education program. Under the leadership of physical education teacher Lisa Beam and two aides, the program has been designated by the state department of education as a Physical Fitness Demonstration Center, which meets or exceeds state criteria requiring factors such as well-trained and adequate personnel and an up-to-date curriculum.

That earned the school yet another flag. Not surprisingly, the flagpole has started to lean, and Daniel recently told the mayor they needed a new one. While they're at it, a taller one might be in order to accommodate the new flags that are sure to follow.

Lynda McDaniel is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Virginia.