SILER CITY — An aura of excitement and anxiety was in the Chatham County air Monday morning as the first school bell tolled for the start of the 2022-23 school year.
Close to 9,000 students flooded the cafeterias and hallways in what felt like the start of school many were accustomed to in a pre-pandemic world. One of those students was Preston Sizemore, a 5th-grade student at Virginia Cross Elementary.
“I’m kind of nervous,” Sizemore said. “There’s new people to meet, new teachers and new friends and so much new stuff to learn.”
Despite his anxieties and lack of sleep the night before his first day, Sizemore said he also had a lot to look forward to — like math class and meeting his new classmates.
“I have a few people I recognize from 4th grade,” he said. “I hope we get to go on field trips together this year.”
For his first activity of the day, Sizemore quickly finished a number-finding activity and began chatting with his classmates, some of whom were also eager to jump into math class. His principal, Sarah Estes said it was impressive to see how much he and other students had grown during their time at VCE. Estes said Sizemore was once a shy child, but on the first day of a new year, he was the first one in his class to volunteer to talk to a visitor from the News + Record.
Estes is entering her fifth year as VCE principal and she’s hoping this year brings a sense of normalcy following a tumultuous three school years trying to handle leading and teaching in pandemic.
“All the kids are excited to be back and that’s what gives us our energy,” Estes said. “There’s hopes of getting back to some more normalcy. This year just feels a little bit different because we are back to all the things that make a return to school exciting.”
The principal added that academic focus areas for the school this year include improving literacy and proficiency scores for students and what she calls “teaching with urgency” to make up for learning loss due to COVID-19. That means utilizing every minute of the school day to help students grow academically, socially and emotionally to prepare them for the future.
“I really want to see them grow and push them to be their best,” said Adriana Lopez, a 2nd grade international teacher at VCE from Colombia. “I love connecting with the kids here at VCE and once you connect with them you are able to push them.”
‘It’s what we live for’
VCE students and their principal aren’t the only ones excited to get the school year started. For the first day of class, Chatham County Schools Superintendent Dr. Anthony Jackson continued his annual tradition of riding the bus with a kindergartener, something he’s done since before he came to Chatham County. This year, Jackson rode the bus with VCE kindergartener Seth Burnette.
“For us as administrators, the first day of school is our championship game, it’s what we live for,” Jackson said. “We build the momentum from the top-down. We feed it to the staff at convocation and now the staff invigorate the students inside the building.”
Inside the classrooms of VCE, students were feeling that energy. Third-grader Hansel Aguilar said he was happy to be back in school because he could see his old friends again after a long summer break and expand his knowledge in math and science.
“I think this year in science we are going to have fun outside,” Aguilar said. “We are going to learn new things to experience and explore.”
Aguilar also said he was really looking forward to swinging on the monkey bars during recess with his new classmates.
VCE was just the first stop in Jackson’s tour. Throughout the first day of classes he visited about a third of Chatham’s schools. He said his plan is to visit all 19 by Thursday of this week. He believes it’s important to see the status of each school firsthand and get ready for the year ahead.
New challenges, new initiatives
The district is implementing several new initiatives this school year including a new app to help families track buses in the mornings and afternoons. The “Here Comes the Bus” app had minor glitches in early phases, but school officials said it is operating as planned for the first day of school.
This school year also marks the first for the One Chatham Strategic Plan, which sets five goals for the next five years: curriculum & innovation; student health & safety; faculty & staff; facilities & infrastructure; and communication & information sharing. The plan is meant to address equity concerns across the district and unite the district across socioeconomic and cultural boundaries.
“It’s the power of one,” Jackson said. “We are united as one, striving to provide the best academic, athletic and arts opportunities for our children.”
While the school year is off to a smooth start, according to Jackson and Estes, it isn’t without its challenges. The district currently has 144 open staff positions, a vacancy rate of about 10%. That includes 36 teacher vacancies and more than 40 support-staff openings including bus drivers and instructional assistants. Jackson said the district is still hiring and anyone interested may apply by visiting www.applitrack.com/chathamnc/onlineapp.
Chatham County fares relatively well compared to vacancies in other counties including more than 950 openings in Wake County and more than 270 vacancies in Durham. Jackson previously told the News + Record he was not concerned about the vacancies because it is common to start the year without a full staff.
The most obvious change in the classroom this year is reduced COVID-19 protocols. Masking and social distancing requirements are optional in CCS, and this is the first time in three years there is no form of online learning or some sort of masking requirement. In fact, walking around many CCS schools, those wearing masks are in the minority.
Even with changes and getting back into the swing of non-pandemic routine, the district says the first day went about as smooth as it possibly could have. Jackson said CCS is prepared for another great school year.
“I am pleased with how smoothly our first day went and was excited to see strong instruction taking place,” Jackson said. “Everyone on staff did their part to ensure a great first day. Our buses got students to and from school safely, our custodial staff did a great job getting our buildings in good shape for our students to return and our cafeteria staff were making chicken and waffles for students. We are off to a great start.”
Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @b_rappaport.
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