A school that is STEM-certified can draw students from far and wide. That is what happened to Gilbert Elementary School after the school suffered a loss of students when the Bluebird plant closed in their LaFayette community, according to Damon Raines, Walker County’s school superintendent.

In fact, Gilbert is one of only 13 STEM-certified schools in Georgia.

But, Gilbert Elementary has other claims to fame. For example, this Title 1 School not only also offers Forest Kindergarten. Raines says Gilbert was “the first publicly-funded forest kindergarten in the United States.”

Gilbert now has two forest kindergartens; and, two forest first grades, according to Raines, who also says Saddle Ridge has a forest kindergarten now, too.

According to Raines, this is a unique program that allows these students to spend half of their day outside, every day, and it doesn’t matter the weather, unless it is very bad — and then they bring them indoors.

The Gilbert Elementary School sits in the midst of 117 acres that the Gilbert Family (the Bank of LaFayette) own that property, and they have given all of that for us to use. It’s their property, but they allow us to do what we want to do on it for the school, according to Raines.

According to Beth Pelham, the principal for Gilbert Elementary School, there are “about 35 certificated teachers” teaching at the school in the classrooms. However, Pelham says “we have a lot of support personnel as well, like in special education, paraprofessionals, etc.”

Special needs kids

And when it comes to special education students, Pelham estimates that this particular student population is about 20% of the student body. Raines said that the state average for special needs students is “about 11%. We run 17 in our district.”

Raines said Gilbert is at 20%, Rock Spring is at 23%, and Rossville Elementary is at 22% and that “we feel that our numbers are higher because people bring their kids to us, because they know they are going to have their needs met.”

“My heart is special ed. And it is always going to be that,” Raines said, which is why he mentioned Project Search, because “I’m heavily involved in Project Search, which is something for our kids who are aging out. But, it gets them a job and that’s close to my heart.”

According to the superintendent, “the school system is allowed to keep special needs students until their 22nd birthday, but our goal is to get them a job somewhere (when they graduate). We want to get them employed.”

Title 1 school stats

Overall total enrollment of students ranges from 500 to 508 or 512, Pelham said, but they average around 500 students total in a given day.

Unlike the 98% free-and-reduced Rossville Elementary School, which is the highest free-and-reduced percentage school in the Walker County school system; Gilbert Elementary is 87% free-and-reduced, according to Pelham, so it takes the second spot overall in the Walker school system.

But, with its amazing achievements in the STEM arena, and its cutting-edge forestry programs, one would assume this school has tons of money at its disposal. It does not.

Principal expounds on programs

According to the former academic coach-turned-principal, “We are an amazing school. We have a lot of outdoor education going on here with STEM. We have two kindergarten forest classrooms and two first grade forest classrooms. We have a hydroponics lab, we have lego robotics, we have a lot of art activities. We do archery...VEX Robotics.”

“Our fifth graders go to a camp every year for a week. They do fishing, canoeing, and they spend a lot of time at the campfire. But that is a great experience for them, because it is a week long. The whole grade level goes; the teachers go. Mr. Green or I, one, will accompany them, too,” Pelham said.

So, who pays for this camp adventure for the students?

“What they do is they sell candy bars (to raise the money),” Pelham said. And, she ordered those candy bars this month, so it is hoped that the community will purchase as many as they can to help these fifth graders get to go on this outdoor adventure with their fellow students this year.

Pre-K to fifth grade, Gilbert Elementary is anything but a typical elementary school. Of course there are the typical traditional elementary school staples: the media center, the gym, the art class...

And then there are the exceptional aspects: that children as young as pre-k are working on STEM projects involving things as cutting-edge as robotics. They call it the VEX class. Gilbert has created classrooms with no walls — classrooms outdoors, that is.

VEX competitions is another unique aspect of Gilbert, as the school can boast a robotics program so competitive that Gilbert is a state champion in robotics and nationally they came in third place, according to Raines. They have even competed in the world VEX competition.

But, lest the public thinks that art — the old school process of developing creativity with crayons and other mediums — is missing from this cutting-edge school, like it has been from Rossville Elementary (at least before this year); think again. Gilbert has art, too.

And Gilbert has a phenomenal art teacher in Ms. Brown, according to Pelham, who says Brown does “an amazing job,” especially by collecting all the children’s best art for submission to the Artrageous Antics art show.

Paint is not the only thing Gilbert children get on their hands. They also play in the dirt and grow things using a hydroponics lab. They grow all types of lettuce and things, which get donated to a food bank, so this school is giving back as much as it is training up children in a myriad of ways.

But, what about all those children learning and playing outside in the elements. What if there were an accident?

No worries. The school is prepared, according to Raines, since there is a nurse on the premises and a primary health care center on the school property as well, serving students, parents, and even the school faculty’s medical needs.

Gilbert Elementary is a one-stop school, offering a little bit of everything and excelling at it all. And, it seems to have a very energetic and committed staff eager to get the new year rolling.

Jan Morris is assistant editor for the Catoosa County News in Ringgold, Ga., and the Walker County Messenger in LaFayette, Ga.

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