Students, teachers are back in class

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Neither Juan Spence nor his parents could have imagined such a day three months ago.

At the time, doctors gave Juan a 5 percent chance of survival. Tuesday morning, he was heading back to school like any other kid.

“It’s been outstanding. I can’t even believe it,” the Warhill senior said. “I’m actually walking. I’m talking. I’m eating whatever I want. It’s been great.”

Juan was in the passenger seat during a serious car wreck on May 22; it led to the removal of part of his skull and two stints at VCU Medical Center in Richmond, spanning more than two months.

With three classes left to graduate, Juan decided to take one class in the fall and two in the spring. That doesn’t mean this semester will be easy, considering the class he’s taking is AP Government.

It’s a natural decision following Juan’s years of advanced placement courses on top of extracurricular activities such as the chess club and the Youth Advisory Council.

“He’s found it to be very challenging, but very rewarding,” said Elizabeth Butler, Juan’s mom. Her son has never been one to take the easy path, and going back to school so quickly is just one more example of that.

Spence was one of the thousands of students who headed back into schools across the area Tuesday morning, starting the 2017-18 academic year.

District spokeswoman Betsy Overkamp-Smith said the district, which needs 22 more bus drivers, saw some buses arrive later than they hoped.

“We did have some delays this morning. By our third tier of buses, we were running around 20 minutes late,” she said. “Everyone with a bus license was on the road today. We added stops to some routes.”

York County School Division spokeswoman Katherine Goff said some division buses also arrived late on the first day of school.

Staff expected some delays with the bus route changes that happened this summer, she said.

“The first week is where we iron out those changes,” Goff said.

New name, new year

Principal Karen Swann, of Laurel Lane Elementary School, which was formerly Rawls Byrd Elementary, has never really gotten use to how quickly the summer seems to pass during her time as a teacher and administrator.

“It’s June, you blink, and it’s the end of August,” Swann said. “You always think of 50 more things you could do, but that’s every day. If we had two more weeks, we’d want three more.”

Laurel Lane assistant principal Deanna Nelson said she usually spends the first morning making sure students get on and off the bus safely.

“You try to pay attention to how they look getting off the bus,” she said. “There are a lot of smiling faces, but also some sad ones. They pass a lot of people on their way to class, so the goal is to have them feeling a bit better once they get there.”

School board member Sandra Young said she makes a point to visit area schools on the first day when she can.

She especially likes elementary schools.“These are basically toddlers, so it’s adorable,” she said. “It’s always an exciting time.”

Returning to Warhill

Warhill High School let Juan pick his teacher and the block in which he would have class. He chose second block, allowing some extra time to get ready and avoid some of the early morning chaos when the majority of students arrive.

He also gets access to the elevator, as well as the option to wear a hat inside. After class, he can enjoy lunch with his friends before heading out for afternoon therapy.

“It’s been amazing,” said Alex Butler, Juan’s dad, who added that school wasn’t a consideration just a couple of months earlier.

He also praised the outpouring of support his family has received in the time since the accident — from friends, neighbors and others. “The community has been so great,” he said.

Butler recalled his son’s recent visit to the recreation center with friends; he got his hands on a basketball, which he dribbled before delivering a layup. Juan still can’t use his left hand, but his doctors say therapy should help with that. His vision has improved from when it was once nothing but a blur. He can now also walk up and down stairs on his own.

“It’s just been really great to see him do all these things,” Butler said. “It’s so exciting.”

New people, new friends

It was smooth sailing at Berkeley Middle School for principal Panagiotis Tsigaridas.

“It was a very efficient day and I think everyone is excited and happy,” said Tsigaridas, who was a principal in Charles City before coming to Berkeley. “I was able to get to every teacher and every class just to touch base… I’m looking forward to building relationships with the students, teachers and parents. I want to make sure our students are ready for high school. Our theme is high school ready.”

Sixth grader Campbell Sikes has three more years before high school, but she was excited about the prospects of the upcoming year.

“Today was great,” Campbell said. “I’m looking forward to meeting new people and making new friends.”

Collaborating for tomorrow

Given the fluidity of emerging technology, teachers face the challenge of predicting what careers will be available to their students four or 10 years down the road.

At Jamestown High School, Principal Catherine Worley said the mission is to cultivate self-starters who can be innovative and capable of both individual critical thinking and learning how to work in a team.

“The big push in W-JCC is collaboration now,” said honors biology teacher Patricia Habersham. “Today in my class, we did a lot of team-building activities. We did go over the handbook as well as procedures for my classroom, but students got a chance to learn about themselves in terms of taking personality tests. Then they got to interact with other people with the same personalities. It’s been fun.”

Habersham, a Richmond native in her second year at Jamestown, also teaches the science component of Concourse 9, which is a project-based learning course designed to incorporate English, biology, history, speech and art.

The goal: collaborate. On Tuesday, Jamestown students were tasked with building a standing structure to be topped with a marshmallow, with limited supplies, while working as a group.

During a brief respite from the flurry of back-to-school activity, Jamestown teachers Molly Sandling and Kathryn Peterkin reflected on why they teach and the first-day jitters that affect even adults.

Peterkin graduated from Jamestown in 2008 and teaches special education. “I’ve always loved working with students,” she said. “I’ve been around different kinds of students with all different abilities since I was in preschool and I knew it was just something I wanted to do.”

For Sandling, an 18-year teaching veteran and social studies instructor, the first day never gets old. “There’s always a buzz,” she said. “And if you don’t feel the buzz, it’s time to quit. If you aren’t anxious and excited for the kids to come back, it’s time to move on to something different. I was up half the night kind of anxious and ready to get in here with the kids.”

Daily Press reporter Jane Hammond contributed to this report.

Wright can be reached by phone at 757-345-2343.

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