End of an era: Fort Mill Elementary School principal retires

joverman@fortmilltimes.comJuly 11, 2013 

— On the first day of school in August, Karen Helms’ friends plan to call and wake her up early in the morning.

Helms will ignore that call, roll over and go right back to sleep, she said.

It will be the first time in more than 25 years that she hasn’t gone back to school. She has big plans for her retirement after 23 years in the Fort Mill School District.

Helms spent her recent years – from 2001 until last month – as the head of Fort Mill Elementary. Before that, she led Banks Street Elementary, a fifth-grade-only school that was in operation for three years, to help ease overcrowding at district elementary schools.

Early in her career in the Fort Mill School District, Helms served as the assistant principal and curriculum coordinator for Fort Mill Middle. Before coming to the district, she taught English and remedial reading in the Rock Hill and Charlotte-Mecklenburg school districts.

The three years at Banks Street were among her favorite, Helms said. The school was unusual because it served every fifth-grader in the district and received a new crop of students each year.

“It was fabulous,” Helms said. “There were a lot of benefits to having a one-grade school. When we got them out of the buildings with the younger kids they began to develop a more forward thinking, more middle-school type thinking.”

The Banks Street facility was perfectly suited for the fifth-grade school, she said. It was old, and the kids “couldn’t do a thing to hurt it.”

Wildlife frequently made its way onto campus, including baby possums outside the door of the cafeteria, a snake that students watched climb up a beam and raid a bird’s nest, and a basset hound named Bones that would occasionally come to school.

“We were forging a new way of doing things, and we were all in it together and we were having fun. The kids were having so much fun,” Helms said.

In her years as an educator, Helms had odd times that didn’t involve critters. One year, she led a school with 13 sets of twins and triplets. Another time, she and assistant principal Alan Howell, now principal at Springfield Elementary, promised students at Banks Street Elementary that if they met their reading goals, Howell and Helms would each kiss a pig.

The goals were met, and Helms and Howell followed through.

“We had to kiss a pig. He kissed one and I kissed one,” Helms said.

The story takes a dark turn that set Howell up for years of good natured ribbing. Sometime after the fun of the afternoon, Howell’s pig died.

“Mine did fine, but the pig he kissed died, so I always told him he had the kiss of death,” Helms said.

Some of Helms’ years were touched by tragedy. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks occurred just weeks after the opening of Fort Mill Elementary.

“We were trying to forge a new culture and a new way of doing business in the school, trying to blend teachers from other parts of the district and then to have something that earth shattering happen when you had barely gotten the doors open,” Helms said.

“You had to jump into that reality immediately. And since then, it has affected safety and security measures in the district. Adding that to the mix made for some very long days.”

In retirement, Helms has some specific plans for the first few weeks.

“I’m going to do the closets and the drawers, then I’ll decide whether to hire someone to clean out my attic or leave it for someone to strike treasure some day,” she said.

After getting her house in order, she hopes to take some quilting classes and maybe open up a quilting business. She plans frequent visits to grandchildren who live in Charlotte and near Raleigh, and to read books that have been on her reading list for years.

“There are lots of options. I don’t have any problems staying busy, but I want to spend time on things that really matter,” she said.

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