CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When Piedmont Elementary School opened four decades ago, it was the first "open-space" elementary school in Kanawha County, and the first county school to offer a gifted program.
Forty years later, the school on Charleston's East End remains on the cutting edge of West Virginia education, Principal Steve Knighton said.
It's one of West Virginia's 19 innovation zones, and one of the state's only year-round schools. It's also a NASA Explorer School that has sent teachers to Houston to ride the "Vomit Comet," a modified DC-9 aircraft that simulates weightless conditions for astronauts.
Reading teacher Brigid Haney says it's never been dull in her 20 years at the school.
Knighton agreed, recalling the craziness of the Kanawha County textbook controversy of 1974.
"You know you're having a bad day when '60 Minutes' is waiting on you outside," he said with a laugh.
Students, teachers and staff past and present will celebrate Piedmont's 40th anniversary next week. On Monday, they'll trek from the old Mercer Elementary site at the corner of Leon Sullivan Way and Quarrier Street down to Piedmont. In 1970, Mercer and two other Charleston elementary schools closed, sending students to Piedmont.
At the school, they plan to launch 40 balloons, an event that will double as a geography and science lesson for students. Wherever the helium-filled balloons land, they'll have a card attached that asks the person who found a balloon to call Piedmont and let them know where they recovered it.
It will be the school's third balloon launch, Knighton said. In years past, balloons soared all the way to Hampton, Va., and New Haven, Conn.
Some students will also march down Quarrier Street to the Kanawha County Schools central office on Elizabeth Street, carrying posters that detail Piedmont's history of accomplishments.
For instance, the school has produced one state schools superintendent, three county superintendents and the three-time reigning state chess champions. Twenty teachers from Piedmont have moved on to become principals.
For years, Piedmont was the only school to participate in the annual Regatta parade, said Haney, who is helping organize next week's celebration.
At one time, Piedmont housed three of the county's five National Board Certified teachers, a high standard for excellence in teaching.
At 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, former Piedmont students and staff will get together at the school.