That effort received a big boost when a group of the school's parents brightened up one of the traditionally dreariest parts of a school — the bathrooms.
Eight parents — six moms and two dads — worked a total of 37 hours over one weekend to clean the bathroom stalls with a power cleaner, sand the doors, and paint them black. They added pictures and inspirational quotes like "She believed she could so she did," "Kindness changes everything," and "Your mistakes don't define you."
Photos of the makeover have gone viral at a time when parents, teachers and students all over the country desperately needed spirits lifted.
Principal Jones, 31, started the year by choosing the book "The Happiness Advantage" by Shawn Achor for his faculty and staff's book study. Students at the Arlington, Texas, school have also engaged in activities such as a "Random Acts of Kindness Week" and a "Positivity Rocks" project in which second graders painted rocks with kind words and hid them around the campus for other students to find.
"Public school has become pretty tedious," he told TODAY Parents. "The kids are being tested to death, the teachers are overworked. We decided we wanted to hit the brakes on everything this year — still working on things like getting scores up, sure, but going out of our way to look for joy, for the positive instead of the negative."
It was several weeks ago that a group of parents approached him about decorating the bathrooms. They decided to schedule the work for the three-day President's Day weekend.
No one had any idea at that time that the work was scheduled to be done just days after 14 students and 3 faculty and staff members were killed in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on February 14.
When the students, who range from pre-K to 6th grade, returned to school that Tuesday, Jones said, they were surprised to find the two bathrooms in the 5th grade repainted with uplifting quotes. The Parkland tragedy made it even more meaningful.
"Schools across the nation are grieving," said Jones. "We are all thinking about how easily it could have been our campus. When the students came in that morning, they were very shocked and very excited. They were so proud of it — all of them wanted to go to the bathroom at the same time!"
Parents plan to paint the 6th grade bathrooms next. They have created a Google drive doc to teach other parents and schools how to accomplish what they did.
The principal has a message to those who might predict the hard work will be undone by vandalism: "These kids have taken ownership of these bathrooms; they know they are special," he said. "And even if by chance one kid down the line decides to mark it up with a Sharpie, does that mean we shouldn't make the effort for the other 130 fifth-graders?"
Jones has been the principal of Mary Moore Elementary for three years and has been in public education for ten years. He said he believes that this focus on happiness is critical for students and teachers now. "School is different now," he said. "The demands we put on kids have changed so much. I really wanted to use this year to reframe their purpose at school.
"School should be a joyous place."