Excitement in the air as Orange, CHCCS begin new year

Aug. 25, 2014 @ 05:13 PM

A low buzz filled the main room as students greeted each other and gathered around four long tables. Some grabbed breakfast from the far end of the room while others sat and chatted or doodled in notebooks. Principal John Williams said hello to each student personally as they entered the school, welcoming them with hugs and handshakes. Soon, the seats at the four tables were filled by the entire student body of Phoenix Academy High School.

Phoenix Academy, an alternative high school in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools system, was one of many schools that started another year Monday morning. In the Chapel Hill-Carrboro system, 11 elementary schools, four middle schools and four high schools celebrated their first day. Orange County Schools saw six elementary schools, three middle schools and three high schools open their doors.
At Phoenix Academy, Williams kicked the year off with the word of the week – tolerance – tied to a strong message.
“When we come into Phoenix Academy, we have to realize we’re all different and all have unique needs,” he told his 32 students during the daily morning assembly. “We’re tolerant of all the differences.”
Phoenix Academy has 16 or 17 new students this year, but Williams has plans to incorporate them into what he likes to call “the family.” Next week, the school will go on a field trip to Chestnut Ridge Camp and Retreat Center in Efland to participate in a low-ropes course and gain team-building skills.
The school doesn’t only have new students – it has new teachers, as well. Zachary White, a recent graduate of N.C. State University, is the school’s new English teacher.
“I’m excited to work one-on-one with the students and really personalize it for them,” White said.
Veteran teachers agreed. “[Phoenix Academy] gives me the chance to cultivate relationships quicker and better with the students,” said Clyde McPherson, who taught for Durham Public Schools before coming to Phoenix Academy to teach social studies three years ago. “I feel like I’m making more of a difference here.”
Changes are also coming to Efland-Cheeks Elementary of Orange County as the school welcomes its new principal, Kiley Brown.
Brown took on the role July 1, spending her summer getting feedback and understanding the school’s needs. She plans to maintain and enhance many of the school’s existing programs, such as the Leader In Me program that helps students learn leadership skills. She also wants to emphasize a team effort in running the school.
“It’s really important to me that we have the most collaborative culture possible,” she said.
Halfway through the day at lunch, the first-graders at Efland-Cheeks also noticed differences.
First-grader Shanea McCauley said first grade is different from kindergarten because “in first grade, you have some homework. Like math, like Julie has 10 mushrooms and she got four more and how much is that.”
Anthony Morris, an eighth-grader at C.W. Stanford Middle School, said, “They tell you a lot less than seventh grade because I guess they expect more from you.” By lunchtime, he had already had four classes, with gym as his favorite.
Liz Everett, a third year language arts teacher at C.W. Stanford, expressed excitement about what the year could bring. “We’re really full, like standing room only,” she said. “But they’re a fun and interesting group.”
Williams has high hopes for Phoenix Academy’s school year, as well. “Last year we did a good job, but I’m not satisfied,” he said. “I think we can do better.”