Opening day brings excitement for Whitfield County Schools students, parents and teachers

·5 min read

Aug. 6—Perhaps the most notable change greeting Westside Middle School students on their first day of school Friday was a remodeled and renovated media center/library.

"It's quite different, and we're really, really happy with it," said media specialist Amy Stanley.

The media center/library's new motto — printed in block letters and hanging from the ceiling — is "read, return, repeat," and "that's our mission here; that's what we want."

Westside Middle School was one of five grant recipients for the 2022 Georgia United Foundation School Crashers program and used funds to revamp the counseling office in addition to the library/media center.

Furniture is now geared toward flexible learning in the media center, and a new ViewSonic board will not only be used to "teach from, but as an advertising billboard for reading," Stanley said. Books are now grouped by genre and subject, which is more alluring, particularly for "struggling readers."

"We're also using dynamic shelving," making books and authors more attractive and eye-catching, she said. "They're drawn to that."

Students can also receive Rocket Passes from teachers if and when they have extra time during the day, she said. They can come to the library/media center and read for a few minutes, an opportunity to "get comfortable with a book you love."

A "reading corner" will include photos of students "caught reading," too, said Stanley. "We want it to feel homey and comfortable."

Ansleigh Runyon had mixed emotions as she started fifth-grade at Westside Elementary School on Friday because "I know this (final) year (of elementary school) is going to go by really fast," and she's in no hurry to leave her school, she said. "Everyone is really nice here — no mean people."

Aubrey Chastain had similar emotions, noting she'll miss the people at Westside Elementary, but she also has things to look forward to this year, like reading new — and more advanced — books, said the fifth-grader. "I like reading."

Runyon is more interested in math.

"You get to do a bunch of activities and lots of learning games," she said. "I'm eager to learn new things this year."

Haiden Coffey is "happy to be back" in school and in a leadership role this year, said the fifth-grader. She's a member of the honor guard — a group of fifth-graders selected for leadership positions — and "we can teach the little kids how to act."

Westside Elementary School's behavioral model was emphasized "right out of the gate" on day one, said Principal Sunshine Narramore.

The school follows a "PRIDE" system of "peace, respect, integrity, discipline and excellence," and students who model commendable behavior earn Rocket Dollars they can spend in the school store.

Additionally, the school begins each morning with a "community meeting," focusing on key concepts for the day and week, Narramore said. With the COVID-19 pandemic, "we've noticed more mental health issues and social anxiety with students, so we try to be very intentional about teaching" tips for combating those struggles.

Teacher Kristen Warren planned to take her kindergartners "on a school tour" for their first day, including "the playground and their first time in our lunchroom," she said. "These are big things for them (as) we get them acclimated."

Though the first day of school can be traumatic, especially for young children, "they're all happy to be here, and we've had no tears," Warren said. Well, "only one of us had tears: I dropped my little one off in prekindergarten today, (so) I was (emotional), but she was just fine."

Warren began teaching in prekindergarten before moving to kindergarten, as "the little ones are my favorite, (and) the first day is an adrenaline rush, because it's all new to them," she said. "They're completely different by the end of the year, which is amazing — and what I get excited about."

For some other teachers, Friday was a first day in a new system, as was the case for Candace Newton, who joined Whitfield County Schools from South Carolina.

"So far, it's fantastic, and everything is running perfectly," said Newton, a seventh-grade math teacher at Westside Middle School. "Everyone is so friendly and welcoming."

Newton planned to use math for an icebreaker with her students on opening day, she said.

"I'll do a math-about-me — this is your life in numbers — which is fun."

Lyla Beckler, Harper Booth and Karsen Newton were part of a group of 11 friends who took photos outside Westside Middle School with their mothers on the first day at the middle school for the new sixth-graders.

"I'm super happy and want to try new things" in middle school, said Booth. That includes school sports, like "volleyball and basketball."

Newton was "a little nervous, but more excited," she said. Middle school provides "more freedom."

Middle school does present an adjustment, however, as "we're the new kids again," Beckler said. "We were the oldest at school in fifth-grade, and now we're the youngest."

Also marking opening day with a photo was Elooisa Hall, who snapped a shot of her daughter Nova walking into kindergarten at Westside Elementary.

"I want to remember how excited she is, and how not nervous she is," Hall said. "She's prepared, and I am very proud of her."

Nova "loves to learn, and she (hasn't been) able to sleep because she's so excited," Hall added. "She's been talking about school nonstop and has made us call her 'Ms. Kindergarten Girl' all week."