When students, families and staff arrived at Toney Elementary on August 5, 2019, for the first day of school, they walked into an environment transformed.

A fresh coat of paint. A brand new mural in the entryway. New plant life in the front, the back, and the middle of campus. Even new learning areas and gardens for students and teachers to take full advantage of.

This is not the Toney Elementary School students and staff remember from last year. This is a new, improved, and welcoming learning environment created by a team of community partners, volunteers, and dedicated DeKalb County School District staff.

Toney Elementary School — at 2701 Oakland Terrace in Decatur — was selected as a top award winner by Georgia United Foundation and Georgia United Credit Union’s 2019 School Crashers program.

As a winner, Toney Elementary received beautification upgrades to help foster a more welcoming and positive learning environment. This included an outdoor classroom and garden area; new carpet from Mohawk in the media center, the teachers’ lounge, and front office; new flexible chairs and tables in the media center; front office paint and seating; exterior paint; computer lab tables; as well as new classroom signage.

On July 19, volunteers — comprised of Georgia United Credit Union staff, DCSD teachers and faculty, as well as members of the Toney Elementary community — united at the school to put the improvements in place.

“These are projects that are longstanding,” said Principal Oliver Dean. “These things bring value to both the school and the community. These will afford us wonderful opportunities for our kids. When you take things from one extreme to the next, you get that ‘wow’ factor. It really gives our students and parents that Toney pride.”

Toney was selected out of several schools statewide following a heartfelt short essay by Dr. Karen Dukes, an exceptional education teacher at the school. She was inspired to apply for an award from School Crashers after taking a student outside and knowing the courtyard had plenty of potential.

“I am just so elated on how this is all came together,” said Dukes. “I’m just so thankful for everything.”

DeKalb Schools Superintendent Dr. R. Stephen Green called the event at Toney the outcome of a true community partnership. Green was among the many to roll up their sleeves and get to work. He said a clean and vibrant learning environment sets the tone for an upcoming school year.

“This is what partnership is all about and what true community service is all about,” Dr. Green said. “I’m here to get busy and do some powerful work for our children. The message when they arrive is, ‘Somebody cares about you. People thought about you before you got here.’ Getting off to a good start plays a big role in a strong finish. That’s what this all about.”

Former Toney student Ralph-Kaylen Jones is always looking for ways to give back to his community. The Stephenson High School graduate was one of the first volunteers on the scene, and he quickly found himself donning gloves and grabbing a shovel.

Jones considers his time at Toney Elementary some of the best yet in his life. He said he’s willing to do anything to make sure current students have a similar experience.

“When you have a chance to make sure things go right for the people coming in after you, you make sure you’re a part of that,” Jones said. “I did a read-in event not too long ago. That was the first time I had been here in about 10 years, and I got really emotional.”

One of the most distinct memories Jones can recall involves sitting on the carpet in the library, now known as the media center. Being able to play a part in the installation of a new carpet, for him, is priceless.

“I just want to show Toney’s students that it’s okay to do this, to maybe ask them, ‘If you don’t do this, what will you do?’” Jones said. “Everyone has to give back. I try to keep the ball rolling forward. I do it for the community. I just want to know that I’m contributing. That’s all I wanted to feel: that I’m doing something that matters, not just sitting at home.”

This article was originally published by The Georgia Sun. Read the original post here.