It's easy for Darlene Halstead to encourage her TSYS colleagues to cross First Avenue and volunteer at Downtown Elementary Magnet Academy.
The executive assistant to CEO and chairman Phil Tomlinon just tells them, "If you walk in there, you're going to feel like a rock star. Those kids are like, 'It's TSYS! It's TSYS!' They get so excited."
They have good reasons.
More than 250 TSYS employees not only have lifted the school's spirit, but the Downtown staff credits their partnership with helping boost its test scores, thanks to their Ready to Race program.
Downtown and TSYS presented an overview of R2R at one of the 24 breakout sessions Friday during the Greater Columbus Partners in Education 2013 Kickoff Conference in the Columbus Convention & Trade Center.
"The people at TSYS are at our school so very much," said Downtown principal Tonya Douglass, "that when they wear their TSYS name badge, we recognize that as one of our employee badges, and they recognize our Muscogee County tag as one of theirs."
R2R has been in effect at Downtown for only one year, but the staff is convinced it already has sparked better academic performance.
On the state's standardized exams, called the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, the school, whose students are from predominantly low-income families, improved in all five subjects in fourth grade and in three of the five subjects in third and fifth grades. The largest gain was 20 percent in fourth-grade math; the largest drop was 2 percent in fifth-grade reading and science.
R2R is a response to the federal government's program called Race to the Top, enacted in 2009 to allow states to apply for a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Georgia received $400 million out of the $4 billion in competitive federal grants. The Georgia Department of Education used some of that money to develop a new education accountability system, the College and Career Ready Performance Index.
"If our kids are going to Race to the Top," Douglass said, "you're not going to run a very good race if you're not Ready to Race."
So the R2R program gets Downtown students ready based on four tenets outlined in a RACE contract students sign:
TSYS employees painted in the school a racing-themed mural that contains a chart with model cars for each classroom, showing the progress based on those four RACE tenets.
"We only had one case of grand theft auto," Douglass said with a smile, getting a good chuckle from the audience. "All 565 little bodies pass through that hallway, and they look every day to see if their car was moving. It's just delightful."
Classes have a pseudo traffic light in their room and four flags representing each of the RACE tenets. If they have at least three of their flags still on green each week, they get to dress out of uniform for a day and wear their R2R shirts, which TSYS bought.
"It's a huge thing for the children," Douglass said. "They walk around with such pride."
The last Friday of each month is Higher Education Day, when students can wear shirts emblazoned with the names of colleges or military branches. At the end of each nine-week grading period, Douglass goes around the school with a cart, delivering treats.
Then as last school year finished, the inaugural R2R class champions for the upper and lower grades were awarded trophies, and TSYS hosted a celebration, including inflatable amusements and water slides. The high-achieving students received wristbands to allow them to skip to the head of the lines.
Downtown teachers like the way R2R incentives foster positive peer pressure.
"If students had some difficulties at home and didn't do their homework," said Downtown third-grade teacher Allison Sanders, "I would see some of them outside the classroom in the morning with another student actually helping them."
And the partnership continues to tweak R2R. This school year, the Downtown staff decided to call their classes not by their grade level but by the year they are expected to graduate high school. For example, the fifth grade now is called the class of 2021.
"It automatically means we're telling them they're going to succeed," said Downtown technology teacher Allison Cush. "We believe in you."ABOUT PIE
The Greater Columbus Partners in Education program was established in 1987 as a joint venture of the Muscogee County School District and the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce. Originally known as Adopt-a-School, its purpose is to improve education by stimulating meaningful business and community involvement in public schools. Through partnerships with businesses, professional organizations, churches, civic clubs and military units, public and private schools tap resources to meet the needs of students, provide educational programming and recognize achievement.
PIE's partnerships comprise 80 schools and approximately 230 organizations.
A volunteer board of directors governs PIE. The board of approximately 30 members represents the region's business, military and education communities. This includes the public school districts of Muscogee, Harris, Chattahoochee and Talbot counties as well as private schools and Fort Benning, and The program is staffed by the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce under the Talent, Retention and Community Development Department.\
To participate, or for more information, call the chamber at 706-327-1566.