It takes a village to create a National Blue Ribbon School.
At least, that's what folks at Fort Mill's Gold Hill Elementary have been saying since their school captured that distinction last week. Gold Hill was one of four South Carolina schools to achieve recognition for the highest academic achievement or for closing academic gaps between students in minority groups and others. Gold Hill consistently rates an Excellent score on the state's report card.
When the national honor was announced, Principal Terry Brewer gave laurels not only to teachers, students and administrators, but to the school board, parents and a whole community that has pitched in to make Gold Hill Elementary special. On Nov. 15, the school will celebrate with them all.
Brewer points to the school's new track as an example of parent and community support. Parents decided it was not suitable for their children to walk around the parking lot to meet the state's new physical activity requirements. So they raised $28,000 to create a track behind the school. Local businesses built workout stations in the track's center. Members of the Tega Cay Volunteer Fire Department donated hours and muscles to digging holes deep enough to accommodate fitness station posts. Lowe's home improvement store kicked in a $6,000 grant.
"So many people have worked with a strong commitment to support our schools," Brewer said. "There's a lot of talented folks in our area."
This summer, one mom painted a mural around the school's cafeteria depicting scenic spots in Gold Hill, Tega Cay and Lake Wylie. The parents also recently bought a Yamaha music system to stimulate the children's brain connections and creativity.
Every Friday, parent volunteers supervise the cafeteria during lunch so teachers can take a break and enjoy one another's company for lunch. It takes 45 parent volunteers a month to accomplish it, and they all took in-school training before they started. One Friday each month, they bring food in from outside the cafeteria.
"It's little things like that that make the teachers' day easier," said PTA co-president Lori Hillman. "They go back to the classroom more relaxed, and they have a better attitude."
Physical education teacher Jason Layman arrived at Gold Hill from northern Virginia and Charlotte-Mecklenburg last year. When he planned his first field trip, he was concerned about finding adults to help chaperone.
"The parent and community support was incredible," he said. "I had 100 parents help out. There are so many volunteers, sometimes you have to turn people away."
Layman organized a jogging club when the track opened this year. It became a lesson in math, geography, science, reading and spelling.
The kids are logging miles traversed on a map all the way to California and back. Teachers punch a hole in each student's card when they finish a lap. The students convert laps into miles.
The children also take a word before they use the fitness stations. They must find the station that begins with that word's first letter, then use the word in a sentence when they return the card.
The school also is acquiring books on tape that the children can listen to as they circle the track.
"A lot more kids are entertained because of all the new equipment, and you get to run around and get exercise," said fifth-grader Grant Fry, 10. "You come outside and get all your energy out."
Layman has researched and uses "brain gym," doing short periods of exercise during the day to get the heart rate up, increase blood flow and, consequently, focus. Last spring, the children did moderate exercise before they took the state-mandated, standardized PACT -- Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test. They also did figure eights with the eyes and across-body exercises to stimulate both sides of the brain. Gold Hill Elementary's students scored in the top 10 percent in the state.
Tracy Fisher, who teaches special -needs children at Gold Hill, said the track and fitness stations have been a boon to her children.
"It's especially helpful with kids who have Attention Deficit (Disorder)," she said. "They need it to get blood pumping to the brain. I think they're able to focus more and pay attention."
The children have their own theories on why Gold Hill is a National Blue Ribbon School.
"The teachers are so kind," said fourth-grader Stephanie Wise, 9. "If you have questions, they help you with the answers. If you forget your milk in the cafeteria, they let you go back and get it. And we have equipment to play on."
Grant, who points out Gold Hill is "where I've been to school all my life," said he thinks his school won the Blue Ribbon because the children are "good in class and listen" and because "the teachers are good."
Everyone has to get good grades to participate in school sports, so he works especially hard to play football.
"Well, you can see for yourself," Grant said as he swept an arm toward the track and fitness stations. "Everybody works together to get good, have fun and be smarter."
Gold Mill Elementary School
Address: 1000 Dave Gibson Blvd., Fort Mill, SC 29708
Principal: Terry Brewer
2006 School report card: Excellent absolute rating, Good improvement rating and met Adequate Yearly Progress in each demographic group under federal No Child Left Behind law 2003-2006
Number of students: 726
Number of teachers: 49
PACT: 96.7 percent met state standard in English/Language Arts, 97.6 percent in Math, 91.7 percent in Science and 94.7 in Social Studies
Student-teacher ratio in core subjects: 16.7 to 1
Teachers returning from previous year: 87.2 percent
Dollars spent per pupil: $5,888
Average teacher salary: $44,315