State School Superintendent John Barge spoke candidly with the kids at Lula Elementary School Monday as he presented the students and staff their 2010 Georgia School of Excellence award.
"I was your age when I made some really good decisions for myself," Barge told the nearly 550 students sitting cross-legged on the gymnasium floor. "Maybe not unlike some of you in here, when I was your age things in my house weren't very good. And school was the place that I liked to go because school was a safe place and it was a secure place and there were adults there that really cared."
Much of Monday's festivities were focused on the students, who administrators said are to praise for the award. The school was honored for having the highest academic gains in the 9th Congressional District over the last three years.
"They've done the hard work," said Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield. "I hope what it shows them is that whether you're in Lula, Ga., or Marietta or Washington, D.C., that you can do absolutely anything you put your mind to."
As part of the award, Lula Elementary was given $1,000 by Georgia Natural Gas to use as it wishes.
Principal Matthew Alexander said part of that money was spent to give the students a party on the Friday before spring break. The school rented an inflatable bouncing house which the kids played in during their physical education time.
The rest of the money will be put toward professional development such as teacher training and materials.
Alexander attributed his school's success to targeting specific problem areas. Students most in need of extra education start school at 7:20 a.m., he said.
"We've really looked at the data of where our students were weak and where they were strong and went to specific targets, specific deficit areas," Alexander said.
Larrece Groover, a third-grade teacher, said the staff has become more creative in the classroom in catering to different modes of learning.
"Not every kid reads and writes and does math the same," she said. "There are 23 in my room but not all 23 learn the exact same way."
The teachers were also given an unexpected award Monday. A massage therapist will visit the school before the end of the school year and give each teacher an individual massage session, courtesy of UnitedHealthcare.
Barge thanked the teachers for their part in Lula Elementary's success and asked them to show patience when the job is difficult.
"Those days that it seems the students in your class, a student, some students, have found that very last button that you have and they've pushed it and you've had about all you can take, I encourage you to remember that there might be a little me sitting in that classroom that you mean the world to," he said.
Alexander said the school will continue to build on the success highlighted by Monday's award.
"We can look at gosh, this is how far we've come. What can we do next?" he said. "...We want to keep this momentum moving forward."