At 7:31 a.m. Monday, students at Greendale Elementary in New Ellenton stood up, placed their hands on their hearts, faced the American flag and recited the “Pledge of Allegiance.”
The early morning routine signaled the return to class for more than 20,000 Aiken County Public Schools’ students from Ridge Spring-Monetta to North Augusta.
After the pledge, Caroline Barker made her first official announcement as Greendale’s new principal.
“Have an awesome day,” she said.
Barker said the first day “went really smoothy,” attributing the successful start to her colleagues’ hard work.
“A lot of these ladies helping here have been here all summer with me, teaching me the culture of the school and getting everything in place. We’re ready,” she said.
With the students back in class, Barker said her focus will be on teamwork.
“Our theme is ‘Teamwork makes the dream work.’” she said.
At Mossy Creek Elementary in North Augusta, Jeff Matthews, who came to Aiken County from Lexington District 1, is another first-year principal.
The move offered Matthews, who was a principal at middle and high school for the last 12 years, a chance to return to his roots.
“I started my career as a fourth-grade teacher, and I’m excited to return to elementary school,” Matthews said. “I’m overjoyed to have this opportunity with these little folks, an opportunity to provide them with a foundation. I’m very passionate about that. I’m so overjoyed and thankful we’re here. It’s going to be a great year.”
At Midland Valley High in Graniteville, about 30 students, mostly seniors, waited in the cafeteria to be assigned to an elementary school where they will act as mentors to young students.
“It’s a great program and a wonderful opportunity for our students to give back to our community,” Midland Valley Assistant Principal Annette Moore said. “They help the little kids, and it’s a great learning experience for them.”
By about 10 a.m., the ninth graders at the district’s newest school, the Aiken Scholars Academy, had finished their first 90-minute block class and were settling in for the second of four.
Students in the academy, a partnership between the school district and USC Aiken at USCA’s Ruth Patrick Science Education Center, will take Advanced Placement and honors courses their first two years. In their junior and senior years, they will take classes with USCA students and earn college credits.
The scholars will have the full college experience and have complete access to USCA’s resources, including the Gregg-Graniteville Library, research opportunities, the Writing Room and tutoring services.
“Our campus is small enough that it will soon feel like a second home, where everyone knows their name, but big enough that they can pursue a wide range of interests,” USCA Chancellor Dr. Sandra Jordan said. “USC Aiken’s faculty, staff and students look forward to working with the academy’s teachers to design challenging, engaging and rewarding high school and college experiences for these students. Before you know it, they will be fully immersed in USC Aiken classrooms, where they will conduct relevant research, explore new perspectives, and share their insights.”
At most schools, the youngest students filed into school with their moms and dads and found their classrooms like it was just another day.
But at J.D. Lever Elementary, a few shed some tears. And some parents, many of whom arrived as early as 6:30 a.m. for the 7:30 a.m. school start, expressed their happiness that school is back in session.
Cole Jones, who dropped his grandson, 7, off, said he was “excited, very excited.”
“He’s going to his new class. It’s all about education,” he said.
Michael Truitt, J.D. Lever’s principal, said the best part of the first day of school is seeing the “kids coming back, coming in” with their “new gear”: backpacks, sneakers and school supplies.
As for academics, Truitt said the school will focus on mathematics and team teaching, for example.
“There’s a lot of new initiatives,” he said. “We’re trying to be more strategic this year.”
Like many of her students probably, Erika Smith, the school counselor at Jefferson Elementary in Bath, said she never sleeps the night before the first day of school.
“It’s exciting,” she said. “This is a happy day because we get to see all our kids again. I want to run around hugging everybody. I love my babies. It’s been a long summer without them. It’s really good to see their smiling faces again.”
Angel Cauley, a coach at Oakwood-Windsor Elementary, agreed.
“I’m excited to see the kids and get everybody back into a routine,” she said. “I miss the kids over the summer.”
Superintendent Dr. Sean Alford made his fourth-annual tour of schools Monday, visiting Greendale, Midland Valley, the Aiken Scholars Academy, Mossy Creek and Cyril B. Busbee Elementary and A.L. Corbett Middle schools in Wagener.
Every student has not only a new backpack but a new attitude on the first day of school, he said.
“Nobody’s failing a class right now. Nobody’s truant right now. We as teachers and staff try to capture that and hold that spirit as long as we possibly can,” Alford said. “We just want to be the very best we can at teaching and learning. We’re excited about the year.”
Dede Biles, Colin Demarest and Kristina Rackley contributed to this story.