DANVILLE – On Friday afternoon, Northeast Elementary Magnet School was only about 8,400 votes away from winning a $500,000 grant, which school officials want to use to build a new gymnasium.
Now in the last three weeks of the Kohl's Cares for Kids $10 million Giveback contest on Facebook, they're ramping up their efforts to get enough votes from community members – and all of their Facebook friends – to make the school one of the 20 winners.
"I have no doubt that we can do it," said fifth-grade teacher Lisa Unzicker, who is spearheading Northeast's attempt to win the grant. "We're the only downstate Illinois school in the Top 50. We just need the support of everyone in the school district and the community. That's crucial for us to win."
This year, Kohl's Cares – the Kohl's Corp.'s charitable arm – is marking its 10th anniversary by donating up to $500,000 to 20 schools. The winners are the eligible schools that receive the most votes on the Kohl's Facebook fan page.
Voting began July 7 and ends on Sept. 3. According to the contest rules, anyone who is 13 years or older and has a Facebook account can vote. Each person may cast up to 20 votes and may vote up to five times for one school.
Schools can use the money for property acquisition; facility construction or renovation; curriculum and technology improvements; books, supplies and equipment; even teacher salaries to reinstate educational programs.
Northeast Principal Cheryl McIntire launched the effort to put the Danville K-5 school in the Top 20 after receiving a contest flier posing the question "What would your school do with $500,000" written across it in big bold letters.
"What really caught my eye was, it talks about having happier and healthier kids," McIntire said, adding that fit into the magnet school's health and wellness theme. "It also says, 'Dream big.' Our dream is to have a new gym so we can hold (physical education classes) all day long, and reach that gold standard."
Northeast has been involved in the Alliance for a Healthier Generation's Healthy Schools Program since it became a health and wellness school. A joint initiative between the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation, it helps schools develop and implement policies and research-based practices that promote eating healthy and increasing physical activity.
In 2009, the school earned national recognition for its efforts when it won the alliance's Silver Recognition Award. The staff is now aiming for the Gold Recognition, but to do that, students must have 30 minutes of physical education each day.
The problem is the older school's gym doubles as its cafeteria.
"There's roughly one hour of our day that the gym is closed so students can eat lunch," P.E. teacher Beckey Burgoyne said.
To work around that, third- through fifth-grade classes exercise for 10 minutes at the start of the day, and kindergarten through second-graders exercise for 10 minutes at the end. Then each grade squeezes in another 20 minutes of class in the gym.
"If we had a gym, I could teach all day," she said, adding that being active each day not only helps students focus in the classroom, but also instills good habits at a young age.
McIntire said the current gym is too small to be used for music programs or other special events. She said the grant would allow the school to build a bigger gym with a stage.
As of Friday afternoon, Unzicker said Northeast had 5,613 votes – 8,433 away from being in the Top 20. "Most of that has just been spread by people on Facebook," she said, adding that members of the parent-teacher organization plan a push to encourage community members to vote and help them set up a Facebook account, if they don't have one.
They will hold a free car wash at Advanced Auto Parts, 310 N. Gilbert St., Danville from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday. They also will be at County Market North, 2917 N. Vermilion St., Danville, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and at the Danville Area Soccer Complex on Winter Avenue all day on Aug. 28.
Unzicker said people may also access the Kohl's Care fan page through the Danville school district's website.
"We would love it if people voted for us five times, and ask all of their friends to vote for us," Unzicker said, adding that her sisters in Florida, Ohio, Kentucky and Texas, as well as some of their Facebook friends, have. "It's really simple. It takes about a minute. And it doesn't cost a thing."
McIntire said the winning schools will be notified around Sept. 7.