Chosen Bicentennial School of Excellence
By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
When Rachel Patterson Elementary School was selected a year ago as one of 200 Bicentennial Schools in Alabama, the school was required to use its accompanying $2,000 grant to fund a community betterment project. That project, along with the successful implementation of it, has earned the school even higher accolades.
RPES was selected as one of 21 Alabama Bicentennial Schools of Excellence, based exclusively on the success of its Pandas for Pets partnership with the local animal shelter.
School principal John Brantley, lead teacher Julie McDonald and Escambia County Superintendent of Education John Knott attended a Tuesday, September 3, ceremony at the Alabama Department of Archives and History, where RPES was recognized by Gov. Kay Ivey as one of the best among the 200 schools that received the initial grants.
The designation brought with it another grant — this one for $5,000 — as well as a Sylacauga marble sculpture created by famed Alabama sculptor Craigger Browne especially for the 21 honored schools, three from each of Alabama’s seven Congressional districts.
Gov. Ivey told representatives of the 21 schools that their projects represented the spirit of the bicentennial, as was intended when the initial grants were awarded.
“You are here today because you took that challenge to heart by thinking, learning and actively supporting projects devoted to the connection between your school and your community,” the governor said.
Brantley said the Pandas for Pets project, which focused on the provision of food, supplies and toys for animals housed at the Atmore / Poarch Creek Indians Animal Shelter, just “took off” when it was initiated.
“We’re ecstatic,” he said during an August 28 interview with Atmore News. “Pandas for Pets has been a huge success. It’s crazy how our project just turned into bigger things than what we originally thought. It has become a tribute to the whole school, everybody. We are very, very excited; we’ve just made history.”
Students at the school held monthly drives to solicit dog and cat food donations. Several local businesses also collected items, and the project began to grow.
“At the end of every month, we would take the supplies to the animal shelter for them to use as needed,” Brantley said. “We also started making doggie treats to raise money for the animal shelter, and the project just kind of really took off.”
The RPES students, guided by an eight-member teacher’s committee, quickly sold the 100 bags of treats they created for last year’s Williams Station Day. They also created an instant demand for more of the products.
“With that initial push, several people called wanting more treats for their dog,” the principal said. “As requested, we would bake the treats and send them out. We continued to raise money that way.”
A Pandas for Pets t-shirt was also created and has sold well, he added.
As the project’s scope grew, so did the participation level. Rachel Patterson students and teachers participated in and sold treats at Jingle Bell Walk, Mayfest and a local church festival.
“As we got into doing this, we saw more opportunities to get our kids involved in various community festivals and events,” Brantley pointed out. “Students at every grade level had a chance to participate and to help in some capacity. Our lunchroom staff helped with the baking, and as the year progressed and the treats became more known, we partnered with the culinary department at Escambia County High School. Those students helped in baking and making the cookies, and we would bag them and get them ready to sell.”
Julie McDonald, the lead teacher on the project, said the Pandas for Pets students began diversifying their money-raising efforts.
“We did face painting for the Alabama-Auburn game and at Halloween; we sold popcorn on Dr. Seuss Day (Read Across America),” McDonald said. “We asked for something different every month from parents — one month it was cat litter; another month it was cat food, or blankets and toys at Christmas.”
Brantley added that several people, many of whom did not have children or grandchildren at RPES, would stop by the school with pet food or supplies.
McDonald said the students were able to raise “almost $5,000” through the expanded effort. Even after the purchase of ingredients and supplies for the pet treats, they were able to raise “more than $4,000” for the local shelter.
During Tuesday’s ceremony Karen W. Porter, a member of the State Department of Education and of the Alabama Bicentennial Advisory Committee, read a statement from Brandon James, director of the local animal shelter.
“It is amazing to me that a group of 500 elementary students have brought more attention, donations and love to the animals in our care than do most adults in their lives,” the statement read.
A special ceremony is planned for Wednesday, September 4, at the school. State Senator Greg Albritton is to make a special presentation, and Gov. Ivey and State Representative Alan Baker have been invited. The school has also been invited to attend the December 14 Bicentennial celebration in Montgomery.
Brantley revealed that a person with the state’s Bicentennial School program told him Pandas for Pets was “one of the most unique” projects to evolve from the 200 schools who were awarded the first round of grants.
He said the project would not end just because the competition for grants has been completed.
“It’s not going to go away,” he said. “We are going to continue to push to raise money and do other projects to help the animal shelter. We plan to have several events to push this out to the community. We’re super-excited. It’s a good thing. Our kids are learning about community service, and that’s something to be commended.”