Free Home Elementary School, led by Principal Karen Carl, won the 2013 School Bell Award presented by the Georgia Association of Elementary School Principals.
The honor is presented to 10 schools in Georgia each year in recognition of outstanding programs in the area of curriculum and organizational leadership.
Free Home was selected for the honor based on its initiative, “Cultivating a Positive Learning Environment.” The selection committee chooses exemplary programs that show positive results and reflect significant involvement of staff, students, parents and community.
Free Home was recognized during the association’s summer business meeting. The award will be presented and the school will be formally recognized during the association’s Fall Principals’ Conference in Savannah.
The school and Carl were recognized by the Superintendent of Schools Dr. Frank Petruzielo and School Board members at the Board of Education meeting Thursday.
“Fostering a culture of continuous improvement in teaching and learning is a major system priority for the Cherokee County School District, and this honor illustrates how Free Home Elementary School and Principal Karen Carl carry out this mission every day … and at a level deserving state recognition,” Petruzielo said. “Ms. Carl’s initiative shows the importance of the entire community working together to make a positive difference in the education and lives of our children, and I greatly appreciate the efforts of everyone who helped make her vision a reality.”
Carl said the initiative began on the first day of pre-planning last school year when she met with the staff and read aloud, “Have You Filled Your Bucket Today? A Guide to Daily Happiness for Kids” by Carol McCloud.
“I wanted to introduce reaching everyone’s maximum potential to both the staff and the students,” Carl said of her goal. “Each staff member from the lunchroom staff to the bus drivers received ‘bucket fillers’ in the form of a T-shirt and a plaque with an inspirational message on it to place on his/her desk. I wanted to set the tone that we are the best and should expect the best.”
Another component, she said, was making the initiative one of her personal goals under the state’s new Leader Keys Effectiveness System evaluation system for school administrators.
The goal was written as follows: “The principal will cultivate a positive academic learning environment, model high expectations, respect, empathy for all, utilize shared decision-making, best instructional practices, maintain a positive morale, and support staff through incorporating the knowledge of social, cultural, leadership, and political dynamics of the school community for the change process.”
She implemented the initiative by surveying staff to gauge their opinions and encourage their input; rewriting the School Improvement Plan “with the belief that every student can achieve and will achieve;” holding more staff meetings and increasing professional development; sending weekly messages to staff and a monthly newsletters to parents; offering teachers new instructional tools to better engage students; promoting school district, school and PTA events to staff and parents through additional communications tools; and establishing a “Rocket Pantry” food pantry and related staff volunteer opportunities to assist the school’s families in need.
“The Rocket Pantry is very near and dear to our hearts. We had students coming into school hungry each day. It was difficult for them to concentrate and do their best. Why? Because they were missing a basic need: food. So, we developed the Rocket Pantry,” Carl said.
Community volunteers, including local volunteer firefighters, several churches and Creekview High School students assist with the Rocket Pantry, which is stocked with food that needs no preparation. Volunteers package 15 bags of food weekly for students whose families need assistance, and the students carry the food home on the school bus.
“This cultivates a positive environment by seeing how our community works together for the families in need,” Carl said. “Once these children are fed and no longer hungry, they can focus on their academics. The families are truly thankful, and the students feel like they are contributing to the family by bringing the bags home. This will continue as long as the need is present.”
Carl said, with the support of Free Home Elementary School’s staff, parents and community, she met her Leader Keys goal inspired by the initiative.
“Continuing forward on this journey, we will strive to improve even more. Cultivating a positive environment will continue with new implementations of positive reinforcement that we learned from the Ron Clark Academy. We will continue the instructional component as well, changing whatever is necessary to improve achievement,” she said. “The principal, teachers, students, and parents are all in this together.”
Carl joined Free Home Elementary in 2012 after starting her career with the school district in 2006 as an assistant principal at Hickory Flat Elementary followed by three years in the same role at Sixes Elementary School. She previously worked in the Cobb County School District for 19 years as a teacher and instructional lead teacher.
Carl earned a Bachelor of Science in physical education from Georgia State University, a Master of Science in curriculum and instruction from Central Michigan University and a education specialist degree in teaching and learning from Piedmont College.