Williamsburg-James City, York County area students head back to school

Even veteran teachers are not immune to back-to-school jitters.
On Tuesday morning, Matthew Whaley Elementary fifth-grade teacher Bryan Cole made his final preparations before the hallways filled with students.
“This is my 21st first day of school, and I think I am just as nervous as the students,” Cole said. “I started waking up at 2:30 a.m.”
Teachers and students throughout the area were feeling those nerves, as Williamsburg-James City County and York County schools opened for the first day of the 2016-17 school year. Teachers prepared classrooms, parents snapped back-to-school pictures and administrators hoped bell schedules and bus routes operated as planned.
Changes in York
As students filed into Waller Mill Elementary in York on Tuesday morning, many marveled at the new portion of their school as teachers and parents helped them find the correct classroom.
“We’ve had new renovation all over the school,” said principal Jennifer Goodwin. “The students, for the most part, are seeing it for the very first time.”
The changes include new classrooms on both sides of the campus. The front of the school, where buses dropped students and parents walked their children to the door, is newly painted.
Some students did not seem too moved by the changes to their school. Ethan McCleary, a fifth-grader heading into his third year at Waller Mill, was rather demure about his first day back. He isn’t sure what his favorite subject is, but knows what he is interested in for the time being.
“I want to go into the ocean,” he said. “I want to do a lot of things.”Peyton, who is starting the first grade, was more direct in addressing his immediate interests: they involve a diamond. “I want to play baseball,” the first grader said. He and two friends filed into the school together.
One of his friends, Trevor, mentioned that his favorite subject was gym. “I’d like to run an amusement park,” he said of his long-term goals.
Goodwin greeted children and families as they entered. Her aim is to make the children feel welcome.
“These are sweet kids,” Goodwin said. “We’re very glad to have them.”
Joys and challenges
At Lafayette High School, a group of African-American men from First Baptist Church of Williamsburg greeted bleary-eyed students shortly after 7 a.m. as they walked into school.
The Rev. Reginald F. Davis, the lead pastor, said the men were there to encourage the students — especially the black students who make up roughly a quarter of the school’s population.
Kenneth L. Bailey, another pastor at the same church, gave a historical perspective to the group’s efforts.
“There were times when [black people] couldn’t get educated,” Bailey said. “Now, there are so many other things going on to stop them from being productive with their education. We’re here to let the world know we realize what is going on. It’s our moral obligation to help these young people prosper.”
The first day of school brought its own set of joys and challenges for faculty at W-JCC’s Toano Middle School.
“Excitement is in the air,” said Toano Principal Tracey Jones. She stood in the school’s front lobby as children darted around her, looking for their classrooms.
On top of directing students to their classroom or bus, Jones said one of the challenges of the day was assuring parents dropping off their kids that everything is under control. She said the phones had been ringing all day with calls from parents.
One parent who didn’t seem too worried about the first day was Jonathan Wallace, 47, who had just dropped off his 13-year-old at the school.
Wallace and his family recently moved from Texas and are excited to be in a new community.
“So far, so good,” Wallace said. “They’re excited about coming to a new school.”
Making learning fun
At Matthew Whaley Elementary School, Chloe Williams, 6, was the epitome of back-to-school excitement as she sat in the carpool line, waiting to start her first day of first grade.
“I'm excited for more homework,” she said. “I like homework.”
While images of worksheets danced in Williams’ head, Matthew Whaley kindergarten teacher Kerry Armbruster talked about how to instill a love for learning.
“Today is all about making learning fun,” she said as she described the kindergarten daily routine filled with singing, dancing, yoga, gardening and life lessons.
And as a 29-year veteran, Armbruster knows how to teach five and six-year-olds about life. Part of the week’s lessons will include a demonstration using apples: The students will call one apple mean names and praise another one. Armbruster would then cut open the insulted apple to reveal hidden bruises - a lesson on the impact of mean words.
“They think it's magic,” Armbruster said.
But beneath the merry facade is pressure: Armbruster is expected to have her students reading and writing by the time they leave her class.
“Some can't count or recognize their own written name, so we have a lot of work to do,” she said.
At Stonehouse Elementary, Diego Ruiz, 10, waited outside the school doors with his parents, Myra and Noel Ruiz.
He said he can’t wait to have a new schedule and, even more, to learn how to play the trumpet, an instrument he specifically chose.
Myra Ruiz was excited for Diego to start fifth grade, and to learn trumpet, although the excitement mixed with some nervousness.
“It’s his last year,” she said. “He’s transitioning.”
Katie LaRue, a school counselor at Stonehouse Elementary School, greeted students as parents dropped them off.“I just want to see the kids stay happy and successful. Help them get there,” LaRue said. “See the smiles that they have on the first day stay.”
Student athletes adjust
Most high school student-athletes have been practicing since early August, if not working out over the whole summer, so the major adjustment comes with practice times.
Chris Boop is in his first season as head coach of Bruton’s cross country team, which transitioned Tuesday to afternoon workouts.As the team set out on a warm-up run around the school Tuesday, the Panthers’ football squad practiced in full pads behind the school and a few field hockey players carried water coolers out to practice on the baseball field.
“We’re used to having practice at 6 in the morning,” Boop said. “Now, they’re coming to school and they’re spending all day in school, and having an afternoon practice out in the heat so it’s going to be an adjustment, but nothing they aren’t used to.”
Bruton’s first meet is Saturday in the Newport News Invitational at Newport News Park.
Boop said, “We’re going to recruit a little bit this first week of school with some freshmen or new kids that transferred in, but for the most part, we’re pretty much set.”
Full lessons on day one
At Jamestown High School, Principal Catherine Worley said the first day had gone smoothly and that she had spent a chunk of her day observing classes with School Board Chair Jim Kelly and Acting Superintendent Olwen Herron.
She said she was impressed with what she saw: teachers were teaching full lessons on day one and at the same time getting to know students.
“What’s most important is welcoming our students and building relationships,” Worley said. “We had classes engaged in labs already, students singing. Teachers get 85 minutes with students, which gives them time to engage in learning on the first day.”
At 2:20 p.m., the bell rang for the end of the day and students streamed out. Freshmen milled through the bus loop, trying to find the correct bus for the ride home. Any adult, regardless of their knowledge of the transportation system, was likely to be approached and asked for help.
District Spokesperson Betsy Overkamp-Smith said there were no major issues with transportation, although the schools are ironing out minor issues.
“That is typical for first day of school, to have a couple of transportation issues,” Overkamp-Smith said. “Students getting on wrong bus, or the schools working out timing of a bus run.”
Once the masses had left Jamestown on the buses, Ronnie Rothwell, 15, leaned against a piller outside the school. He had just finished his first day in W-JCC schools after transferring from York County. He said he was impressed with his first day at Jamestown.
“It was very exciting,” he said. “This seems like a very friendly school.”
Staff writers Wesley Wright, Heather Bridges, Jack Jacobs and Kellen Holtzman contributed to this report.
McKinnon can be contacted at 757-345-2341.

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