Byline: TERESA STEPZINSKI
WAYCROSS -- Teams of third-grade students at Ruskin Elementary School sprinted in a relay race across the gymnasium to a jumble of bottle caps bearing various letters of the alphabet.
Quickly sorting through the pile, the youngsters snatched up the letter caps they needed, then ran back to arrange them on a whiteboard to finish spelling a series of words called out by their physical education teacher.
In a nearby classroom, kindergarten students counted and arranged small red, blue and yellow plastic teddy bears to help decipher basic math equations that they then printed neatly with markers on whiteboards.
In a fourth-grade class, special education students and others without special needs worked together in small groups to tackle a reading and grammar exercise as part of a classroom assignment.
Learning is an exercise of mind and body at Ruskin Elementary School, which has earned national recognition for student achievement and innovative teaching methods.
"Everybody at the school loves and cares about every child, and will do whatever it takes to help them learn and be successful," said Latricia Wesley, who teaches fourth grade at the rural Ware County school.
Ruskin has 490 students. Principal Janie Fields leads a staff of 42 teachers and nine paraprofessionals. Ruskin is among 48 finalists nationwide for the prestigious Intel and Scholastic Schools of Distinction Awards.
In the eight award categories, only three Georgia schools were named. Ruskin is the state's only finalist for the Leadership Excellence Award.
The award recognizes "dynamic leadership based on vision, data, research, best practices and continuous monitoring and assessment that engages the school community."
Ruskin is competing against two other elementary schools, one each in North Carolina and Michigan.
The awards program was established three years ago by Intel, the world's largest computer chip maker, and Scholastic, a global children's publishing company.
Ruskin and the other finalists are in the running for $190,000 in grants from the Intel Foundation, plus prizes from sponsoring companies. The awards will be presented Oct. 5 during a ceremony in Washington.
National recognition for education excellence is becoming a trend at Ruskin.
The school was named a 2005-06 Learning-Focused School of Merit for making significant gains in student achievement. Ruskin was among four schools nationwide to attain the honor, which is based on a comprehensive teaching strategy known as the Learning-Focused Schools Model.
The Learning-Focused program is a framework of the best teaching practices that can be used in the classroom. More than 2,000 schools nationwide have implemented the program, which encourages teachers to work collaboratively, share successful teaching practices and develop innovative lessons that motivate students to learn.
Ruskin earned the award by posting student achievement gains higher than 94 percent of all other Georgia elementary schools in the previous testing period.
"With Learning-Focused, we're given the opportunity to be creative and think outside the box in teaching the students," Fields said.
Because teachers collaborate and coordinate their lessons, there is more consistency for students, she said.
Ruskin's success has attracted visits from about 300 educators since Christmas from schools throughout South Georgia, where they are considering adopting similar teaching methods.
An educator for 30 years, Fields has been Ruskin principal for about eight years. The school's success, she said, rests with its teachers and support staff.
Employee commitment is high and turnover low at Ruskin despite competition from neighboring school systems.