A sea of Derby hats fills Campbellsville Elementary School's multipurpose room Friday.
As students file in for a morning assembly, they are greeted by Linda Handley, their principal. And while the assembly is cause for celebration, honoring students who have excelled, there is a touch of sadness in the air. As the school year ends and students and teachers file out for the summer, Handley will be leaving as well.
After five years as principal of CES, Handley has accepted a state job as a highly skilled educator, part of a Kentucky Department of Education program aimed at helping ailing schools. Handley is one of 15 Kentucky educators recently hired for the program.
Handley said she decided to apply for the job after Campbellsville Independent Superintendent Diane Woods-Ayers encouraged her.
Highly skilled educators work with struggling schools on ways to improve student achievement. Typically, they spend two to three years at a school and may be assigned to several schools at once.
The decision to leave CES wasn't one Handley says she took lightly. She decided to apply for the job after prayer. Some days, she said, she felt good about her decision. Other days, she didn't.
In the end, Handley decided the move would be a good one, especially since CES will be left in good hands.
"We do have dedicated, hard-working staff members here," she said.
Now, Handley is excited to be taking what she has learned about student success at CES and apply it to struggling schools. But she isn't going to forget about her five years in Campbellsville.
"This has been the best five years of my life," she said. "I wake up every morning and I can't wait to get here. I love seeing children learn and I will apply that to my next job."
Handley's decision to pursue an education career came when she was still a student herself in her hometown of Columbia, Tenn.
"I decided when I was in third grade to be a teacher."
Handley's inspiration was her third-grade teacher, Cornelius Braden, who Handley describes as "the best teacher in the world."
Braden made such an impression on Handley, that to this day she remembers Braden's clothing, the way she wore her hair and even her smell.
"I asked her, 'What do I have to do to be a teacher?' She said I have to go to college."
That answer came as a bit of a surprise to Handley, who'd never even considered college at that young age.
But after graduation, Handley enrolled at Columbia State Community College, before moving on to Middle Tennessee State University. She earned her Rank I and principal certification at Western Kentucky University.
Her first job came as a first-grade teacher at Brown Elementary School in Columbia, Tenn.
"I remember getting up early and practicing what I would say."
Handley was at Brown Elementary for seven years before moving to Kentucky to teach first-, second- and third-graders at Hodgenville Elementary School. She was there for 22 years.
By then, Handley had added a new role to her career - mother. Handley and her husband, Paul, a coach and physical education teacher at Western High School in Louisville, raised three daughters - Karen, Schlonda and Portia. They also raised a relative, Shayla, whom they consider a daughter.
The desire to become a principal was initially ignited by co-workers.
"I always had teachers tell me, 'You should go back to school and be a principal.'"
With all of her children now grown and on their own, Handley decided to make a go of being a principal.
After earning her certification at WKU, Handley applied for the principal's job at CES. She visited the school and, Handley said, it was there that God told her that CES was where she was meant to be. Though she had only submitted her application that day, Handley knew she had the job.
Handley said she wanted to become a principal for the same reason she wanted to teach - she wanted to impact lives.
"I just wanted to make a difference, not only in the lives of the students, but in the lives of the adults as well."
For the past three years, Jill Imes has worked alongside Handley as assistant principal. When Handley first arrived at CES, Imes was a Reading Recovery teacher.
"She is just a wonderful person all around," Imes said. "She is so enthusiastic and motivating."
Handley's positive attitude was present from day one, Imes said, and she made it easy for students and staff to accept her as the new principal.
Sonya Orberson, the school's guidance counselor since 1995, said Handley told each staff member individually of her decision to leave CES.
"It was a shock and I hate to lose her," Orberson said.
However, Orberson knows that Handley is perfect for the highly skilled educator job.
"She has a very motivating personality and that will help her in the highly skilled educator program. She'll go into the schools in a very positive way."
Handley said her five years at CES has provided her with plenty of proud moments.
One of those high points came with the implementation of CHAMPs - an approach to classroom management that sets clear goals and guidelines for students.
"If the students know what you expect, they will try to do it," Handley said.
Another high point, Handley said, was the formation of a new mission statement that declares that all students will read on or above their grade level and score on or above their grade level in math before leaving CES.
A new curriculum, which incorporates Thoughtful Education techniques, and the school's "Guideline for Success" has also helped students achieve.
Handley begins her new job on July 1. By then, the school's site-based decision making council hopes to have a new principal in place.
Staff and parents will have input on the hiring of a new principal. The Council will host a faculty input meeting at 3:30 today in the school's cafeteria. At 5:30, the Council will host a parent input meeting in the school's library.
Though she's sorry to see her go, Imes said, she knows Handley will excel in her new role.
"The state Department of Education is fortunate to have her," she said. "We'll miss Mrs. Handley. She has made a lasting impact on our school."