School nominated for state award looks to future

It would be apt to say that there is certainly a buzz around Hammond Hill Elementary School this year.

The school, celebrating its 60-year anniversary, was featured on the Tour of Homes. It was a recipient of the National Blue Ribbon, and has also won the S.C. Department of Education Red Carpet award, the Palmetto Gold for Outstanding Student Academic Performance & Excellent Results in Closing the Achievement Gaps. It's currently in the running for the Palmetto's Finest Award as well, and the school will hold an event on March 11 at 4 p.m. in its cafeteria for students and parents to watch a streaming broadcast.

Hammond Hill is home to three Aiken County Teachers of the Year - Robin Patterson in 2007-08, Nikki Mock in 2010-11 and Uyen Griffis in 2011-12.

So what is it that makes this school so special that it's getting recognized on local, state and national levels? Well, depending on who you talk to, it's likely you'll get different versions of the same answer: The people.

And it's not just any one person or group. Hammond Hill has become such a success thanks to a combination of management, personnel and people in the community.

"The people that I get to work with are like a family," Mock said. "If I ever need anything, there's always someone willing to go out of their way and share ideas. The faculty here comes together and plans together. The school really just becomes your world and a part of who you are."

The familial feeling is something that Patterson also echoes.

"Every day it is as though I'm going to work with an extended family," she said. "My son, Alan, also attends Hammond Hill and he feels as though he is part of a little community."

In conjunction with that, it's a school that exudes enthusiasm.

"Just take a look down the hallways and you'll see kids who are paying attention," Griffis said. "They're smiling, and they're happy to be here and learning."

The school also encourages students with incentives, rewards and recognition.

"We recognize students who are trying hard daily," said Janet Vaughan, principal of Hammond Hill. "We have what are called positive office referrals. On the HHE Morning Show, we call students to the office to be recognized, and they'll get a character pencil for displaying whatever life skill."

The leadership displayed by Vaughan also inspires her employees. She attended Hammond Hill as a child and the love she has for the school could not be more apparent to those that she has surrounded herself with.

"I really just have to give kudos to my boss," Patterson said. "Mrs. Vaughan is the most dedicated boss I have ever known or met. She gives 110 percent and, in turn, so does her staff."

Vaughan has been known to put in long hours far beyond the school bells, as well as on weekends. She, like the rest of her staff, attends events featuring students and is active in the community. The admiration held by those around Hammond Hill for her is well-voiced.

"Mrs. Vaughan is phenomenal and she wants the very best for faculty and students," Griffis said. "It's hard to find someone like her. She has helped create a place where a lot of diverse kids can come together. She has helped put together a number of great programs."

Of course, the staff is also aided immensely by community involvement. Griffis noted that the volunteers who give time are a vital part of the school's success. One of those volunteers is Will Harper, a part-time engineer who helps Griffis with her special needs class.

"I can get things Xeroxed for her, go out with kids on the playground or even do data collection," Harper said. "Little miscellaneous things that allow her aids to stay with the children. You want to be around great people who love children, and it's amazing the caliber of what they do. It's a very refreshing place to volunteer."

Another volunteer is Steve Briggs, who tours local schools with his therapy dog, Serena.

"I interact with Mrs. Griffis more than anyone else, but it's not just her and her aids, it's the staff, other teachers and aids," he said. "Everyone seems to be involved and enthusiastic. Not everyone has had a good day, that's human nature, but the staff's attitude to try something new is very unique."

Briggs has a background in the restaurant business and he also noted that the culture around Hammond Hill and the management makes the school thrive.

"The work that Mrs. Griffis and the rest of the staff do is amazing," he said.

As far as what's next for the school, right now Vaughan said they are waiting to hear back about their second site visit from the state. That round of judges will visit the other elementary schools that are nominated - Ft. Dorchester Elementary in Dorchester School District 2 and Jesse Boyd Elementary in Spartanburg District 7.

Vaughan noted that the strides made at the school wouldn't be possible without the support and contributions of parents.

"It's very, very positive," she said referring to the feedback she has heard. "They are very supportive. For example, this past year the PTO and School Improvement Council combined forces and we all felt our courtyard needed a face lift. It was a dreary place and the cement tables had seen better days. We needed to totally renovate this courtyard and we thought it was going to take several years to raise enough money to build an amphitheater, a water garden and to purchase tables. Then, literally, the whole project from start to finish was completed in less than five months."

As far as the future, Vaughan also has begun charting the course.

"One of the things that we are looking to do in the near future, in the Compass Lab where the students are working individually in their assigned programs, is set up a math station," Vaughan said. "So that teachers can work one-on-one with students who need additional help, while the rest of the class can work on their programs. That's one initiative that I'm trying to get started, and I just started on putting that together."