In the next few days, 18 elementary schools will close their doors for the summer. However, in the fall, only 17 schools will welcome students back for another term.
The Columbia County school system decided not to renovate three old neighborhood schools, instead consolidating them into two new school buildings that could house 1,000 students each. That figure is twice as much as any of the older three schools. Martinez and Evans Elementary would retain their school’s names and traditions, but Bel Air Elementary’s population would merge into the other two schools.
With all of the excitement of the two-story elementary schools and the merging of students and faculty, let us not forget what Bel Air Elementary School has done for the community. It has provided a firm foundation for elementary students for the past 45 years for a transitioning neighborhood. Furthermore, in the past few years it is the only Columbia County school recognized by the state of Georgia as the highest-performing Title 1 school.
Bel Air Elementary School was built in 1968. According to Norris Long, the first principal of Bel Air, the school opened with grades 1-7. Shorty after, the lower building was built and housed eighth grade.
Janice Blackledge held the longest term, 20 years, first as an assistant principal to Jerry Wilcher, and then as principal of the school.
Mike Doolittle served as principal for several years and had great visions for the Bel Air community, and worked with Mark Boyd as assistant principal. Boyd was the last full-time principal, retiring last year.
Boyd had a passion not only to meet the academic needs of the students but also to help them develop better relationships with their peers. He began a Gentleman’s Club in which he organized basketball games, field trips and speakers. He met with them daily before school and always let them know he had high expectations for their behavior and work ethic. He also had several teachers who volunteered to lead a Ladies Club. At the end of the year, these students were invited to join their leaders at Calvert’s for a meal to celebrate what they had learned. He had a heart for his students. He truly walked his talk, and demonstrated the belief that “They don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
Bel Air evolved into a neighborhood school that could teach the standards and still be a place of warmth and encouragement. The faculty worked together as they tried to meet the needs of the students. While other schools were paying incentives for tutoring programs to get students better prepared for CRCT, many Bel Air teachers gave up Saturday mornings and weekday afternoons to tutor. Also, the faculty demonstrated compassion as they held numerous fundraisers and gave from their own pocketbooks to help families in need.
I know some look at Bel Air as a brick building sitting on a great piece of real estate. I can’t disagree. However, I also know it is the place where this Northerner was offered her first pimento cheese sandwich and sweet tea in 1978. It is also where I learned that my college degree was a piece of paper that initially got me my job, but it was the support and the love of the people that I worked with who made me the teacher I became. Finally, it also was the place that all three of our children got their education from passionate teachers who held high standards for their academics and behavior.
As I reminisce and count my blessings, I can’t help but wonder what will be built on this great piece of real estate. I selfishly would love for it to become another facility where education continues to make a positive impact on our community. I sincerely hope it will not be another shopping center that will change hands several times in my lifetime.
However, no matter whatever takes its place, I do know that as I drive by I will always remember the seeds of knowledge planted at 325 North Bel Air Road for 45 years, not only for the students but for the faculty as well. I will also remember the beautiful trees planted in memory or honor of some very special educators in my life. I will be forever grateful for the legacy of Bel Air School.
(Debbie Callan retired in 2012 after teaching first grade for 34 years at Bel Air Elementary School. The school will hold an anniversary celebration today, May 5, from 2-4 p.m.)