By Kim West
Brilliant sunshine bathed parents and students Monday morning as they hurried across the street to James L. Cowart Elementary School, where an armada of teachers and support staff awaited new arrivals in the lobby.
Principal Kim Moore roamed the hallways of Cowart, a K-4 city school with an enrollment of 290 students, with her walkie-talkie, a bright smile and the composed demeanor of a veteran administrator despite a malfunctioning bell system.
Shelby Wallace, 25, clutched a new nap mat and the hand of her bouncy daughter, Tiffany Mason, 5, as they made their way down a hallway filled with outgoing parents.
Wallace guided Tiffany past the bright red barn door marking the entrance of the school cafeteria and under kindergarten teacher Hannah Cain’s mini-chalkboard door sign — punctuated by a smiling alien — as she prepared to let go of her only child for the first time.
After depositing her backpack and mat, Tiffany plopped into a tiny chair and plunged into a Play-Doh project with her new classmates as her mother whispered a short send-off, gave her three quick pecks on the forehead and stepped away to remove her glasses and wipe away a few tears.
A few moments later, Shelby left the classroom filled with cheery children and stepped into a near-empty hallway for a quick chat about the little girl with a brimming closet of school clothes thanks to a shopping jaunt to JCPenney’s with her grandfather, Elbert Wallace, and a trip to Walmart with her mom.
“She’s been ready for school since she was 3 years old — she never got to go to daycare because she’s had a baby-sitter. She’s been ready to go school, but I’ve not been ready,” said Shelby, a certified nursing assistant at nearby Limestone Health Facility. “I just tried to get her ready by talking to her about having to take naps — she’s one of those kids that never took naps — raising her hand, not talking in class without being called on, walking in a quiet line to the cafeteria and getting permission when she needs to go to the bathroom.”
A few doors down in the brightly painted cafeteria, the lunchroom ladies had already cleared away breakfast and were preparing pizza and tossed salad for the first day’s lunch.
Shelia Pylant, who filled the vacancy left by 28-year cafeteria manager Betty Campbell, spent 12 years as a cashier for the Athens Elementary cafeteria before being promoted to head the lunchroom at Cowart. Pylant joined receptionist Vicki Waldrep, instructional aide Ashley Rudolph and school nurse Kelley Anderson as newcomers to the Cowart staff.
“The biggest difference this year is we’re adding more fruits and vegetables,” Pylant said.
Tandy Norris, director of the child nutrition program for Athens City Schools and among many central office staff making rounds at the system’s seven campuses, said the primary CNP changes this year are a federally-mandated increase in the lunch price by 10 cents and a requirement to provide free tap water to children during both breakfast and lunch.
‘Good first day’
Trey Holladay, first-year superintendent for the Athens school system, also paid a visit to Cowart and said he received glowing reports about the first day back from all of his school-level administrators.
“We had a good first day, and I was able to get out and visit all seven schools. Every principal reported they had a good day, and everything went well,” Holladay said on Monday evening. “I’ve gotten to meet a good many of our parents, and I think they’re very excited about the new school year and excited about getting their kids back in school. This was a great school system before I got here, and we’re just wanting to make sure we maintain that and build on it.”
Terry Roller, the system’s first-year director of transportation, personnel and public information, said the highlight of the day was witnessing the principals as they interacted with students and the level of commitment from the instructional staff.
“It was a wonderful day, and I enjoyed seeing our principals dealing with the challenges as they presented themselves and being creative with their problem-solving while still meeting the needs of their students,” Roller said. “…We have some of the finest teachers around, and they really care about being the change in the lives of children that we talk about.”