‘We’re family’

Jan. 17, 2014 @ 10:55 PM

Frequent applause breaks, and even a few standing ovations, interrupted Friday morning’s ceremony at J. Glenn Edwards Elementary School, which was honored for being named The Head of Class.

But the biggest commotion by far came when the students assembled in the school’s gym saw the giant cardboard check for $50,000 that the school’s staff — everyone from principal to custodians — will split among themselves.

And to hear officials tell it, those same students might be doing it all again next year.

“We want you to work twice as hard, to see if you can’t keep it here another year,” Dr. Lynn Smith, chairman of the Lee County Board of Education, told the students and staff.

The school’s reigning teacher of the year, Lisa Foushee, accepted that challenge. She spoke about her favorite book, “The Wizard of Oz,” and how all Dorothy wants to do is go home. For her, and for many others, Foushee said, Edwards is home.

“Part of home is living with family, and at J. Glenn Edwards, we’re family,” she said, talking about fellow faculty who show up to work at 6:30 in the morning or stay until midnight. “And some schools can’t say that. ... We deserve this, boys and girls. We deserve Head of Class. And Dr. Smith, we’re going to keep that statue.”

The Lee County Education Foundation has awarded Head of Class honors since 2010 to the top public elementary school in Lee County, based on both overall test scores and how many low-performing students from a previous year had improved.

It comes with a $50,000 prize and a statue that depicts a child reading a book and sitting on top of the world — which will be on display in the school’s lobby for the rest of this year and, if Foushee is to be believed, next year, too. A repeat winner hasn’t been named so far, with B.T. Bullock and Greenwood elementary schools taking the prize the previous two years.

Edwards will have competition, though. Sanford Mayor Chet Mann, who is also chairman of the education foundation, recognized Bullock and Deep River Elementary School for making this year’s contest the closest ever, nearly resulting in a three-way tie, he said.

But Mann said he volunteered at Edwards throughout the year and isn’t surprised these students won, having seen their energy and enthusiasm for learning firsthand.

Charlie Parks, chairman of the Lee County Commissioners, praised the energy of the staff and parents, and noted that when parents are involved, children always seem to do better. He also credited the education foundation for giving students and staff something to strive for.

“Competition never hurt anybody, and I think that’s great,” Parks said.

Smith said this is, to his knowledge, the only successful program of its kind in the country. And Superintendent Andy Bryan said he knows that other school districts are jealous of the good relationship this district has with the business community, which supports the foundation and its endowment of more than $1 million.

Bryan added, “Our students are outstanding throughout Lee County Schools, but I think students at J. Glenn Edwards are smiling a little brighter today, walking with a little more bounce in their step.”

Smith said that if they weren’t Friday morning, they would be next week once they saw the statue out front.

“Every time you walk past that statue, I want you to stand up a little bit taller and have a sense of pride in your accomplishments,” he said.

The ceremony did make sure to show pride in everyone involved. Sylvia Bayer, the school’s principal last year when they achieved the winning scores, was invited back from her new post leading Warren Williams Alternative Elementary School. Last year’s fifth graders also were brought back from their middle schools, grinning when they got a standing ovation.

The school’s new principal, Christina Womble, accepted the trophy and check, and then the self-avowed sports fanatic read legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden’s seven-point creed for success. She also gave the students her own formula for success.

“Growing means that each day, we have to better today than we were yesterday,” she told the assembled children. “Keep growing.”