(TNS) -- Breckon Pennell started as principal of historic McDowell Elementary School in Columbia on March 1.
Excited about her first job as the top administrator at Maury County's oldest school building — constructed in 1921 — Pennell introduced herself to students over the intercom.
In keeping with the Maury County Public School system's emphasis on technology, the former assistant principal at Heritage Middle School in Spring Hill asked all 349 students to send her an email on the school district's safe server.
"I realized they all had an email address and wasn't sure to what extent they had been using it," Pennell said. "I thought this was an opportunity to build a one-on-one relationship with the students and capitalize on the technology. I told the teachers about it because they were instrumental in getting the students to use email and figuring out how to email me.
"Over the intercom, every day for a month, I reminded them to email me. I printed out a list of every student and a check list. And it was overwhelming. Every student kindergarten through fourth grade sent me an email before the first of May."
Pennell emailed them all back — sometimes late into the evening — and started a conversation with a few. She asked what they would like to learn. Her own kids thought she would never finish sending emails to the students.
"One of them said she wanted to learn about human digestion," Pennell said. "One from kindergarten wanted to learn more about being an artist because it inspired her. Another said she wanted to build a swimming pool at the school."
At 11:27 a.m. April 17, an email popped into her inbox from 9-year-old Houston Jones, a third-grader in teacher Christina Boyce's class.
"This week, we are learning about endangered animals," it started, listing a website for the World Wildlife Federation. "Let's adopt an endangered animal! Wouldn't it be cool for McDowell to adopt one?"
Maybe not as cool as a swimming pool, but Pennell wrote Houston back, saying, "I think that is an AWESOME idea. Why don't you make a plan how we can do it, and let's have a meeting to discuss it?"
Houston and his 24 classmates studied endangered animals earlier in the school year. As a refresher on vocabulary, Boyce revisited the topic and asked students to make a poster and write a paper on an endangered animal.
"We have the posters on the wall outside the classroom," Boyce said.
The wheels of imagination were in motion on Houston's big idea, which turned into a series of even bigger ideas.
Houston noticed a button on the WWF website to adopt an animal and found out it cost $55. If Houston and his fellow students wanted to adopt an animal, they would have to figure out how to raise $55 and which animal they wanted to select.
"Several students came up with big ideas," Pennell said, "and I encouraged them to come up with ideas. Even for the swimming pool, I said, 'Come up with an idea on how to do it.' With Houston, it took him a couple of days, and he emailed me back with a plan of what he would like to do."
At that point, Pennell pulled in Boyce and art teacher Angela Landmark and the students.
"It was a collaborative effort, but Houston initiated it with his leadership," the principal said.
Houston suggested having students vote on which animal to adopt from five choices — lion cub, cheetah, koala, gorilla or penguin chick.
Students made posters of their favorite animal. All students were sent a Google Doc to vote on their choice. They chose a koala.
To pay for the adoption, they decided to have a bake sale during lunch and to sell pictures from the school's new art club.
"We had the bake sale and art sale during lunch so everyone could buy something, if they wanted," Houston said.
Rather than spending 50 cents for an ice cream, students bought a cupcake or cookie, the principal said.
"They were being very supportive of their fellow student and meeting his goal," Pennell said.
Students wound up raising $213 Friday, nearly four times their goal. The rest of the money was donated to the school, which ordered a Sphero robot with assistance from Houston's mother, rising PTO President Leigh Jones.
"We're working on project-based learning, robotics and coding," Pennell said. "Coding is like the new foreign language for the students."
After the bake sale and adoption of the koala, another student messaged Pennell. She wanted to find out about manufacturing in China. That's a great topic for Maury County, with the GM Spring Hill Manufacturing plant in Spring Hill. The principal recommended she talk with Houston and set up a plan for doing a student-led project on China.
"We're trying to instill an ownership about their learning and what they have a passion about," Pennell said. "That gives them an ownership over their school and what they learn."
And in this case, it all started with an email, which led to a series of great ideas.
©2017 The Daily Herald (Columbia, Tenn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.