It was a year of firsts.
The first students and teachers walked in the doors in August 2016 of Brandywine Elementary and DeSana Middle schools, campuses created to account for the growth of the population in the southwest portion of Forsyth County.
The first time new technology, new air conditioning units, new hallways and classrooms were used.
As students left the schools on Martin and James roads, respectively, Friday, May 26, for the last time before moving up a grade, their principals and administrators looked back on their first year.
“With a new school, you don’t have a reputation yet. People haven’t heard how you do things. You have none of that to, I won’t say rest your laurels on, but for people to know you. And that uncertainty is scary sometimes,” said Terri North, DeSana principal. “And there’s no way we could change that, so the relationship building from the beginning had to be a huge emphasis with these teachers … They really bought into that and saw the importance of establishing those relationships to bring the kids together. Especially the eighth graders.”
It wasn’t just getting used to a new building and a school without a track record.
“This isn’t easy for them,” North said of the eighth graders who were redistricted from other schools to populate DeSana, sometimes away from friends and familiar teachers. “A lot of them would have preferred to stay at Piney Grove or at Vickery Creek [middle schools], and I totally get that, but they’ve been really good troopers.”
North herself was transferred from her principal position at Piney Grove to open DeSana. She has had practice in that, though. She also opened the new Otwell and Riverwatch middle schools before opening Piney Grove.
It wasn’t even just having to make new friends in a new school.
A world map hangs on the wall of the school nurse’s office. Stickers litter the entire world. Each one represents where a first-generation American DeSana student was born or where their parents were born.
Rebecca McWalters, DeSana’s nurse, said some students at the beginning of the year were afraid or ashamed to say they are from Mexico.
“Any way you slice us, we’re pretty diverse. And it’s not just ethnicity,” North said. “I think we’re 28 percent Hispanic, 25 percent Asian, 9 percent African American, 3-4 percent multicultural, so that leaves 30-something percent white. But also academic achievement. We’re 15 percent gifted, 10-11 percent special ed — kids with IEPs — and 5-6 percent ESOL. Which doesn’t sound like a lot, but for the county it is.
“And if you look at socioeconomic [differences], we’ve got kids living in half-a-million-dollar homes, and we’ve got kids who live in trailer parks.”
She said she focused recruiting teachers on those who would embrace the diversity, those who could bring different programs and opportunities to the table.
It’s not just one of all of those factors.
So they created programs and clubs and led events and activities to build relationships.
Students and teachers made a time capsule at the beginning of the year and recently spent a day doing service projects around the county. Students and teachers each have their own set of recognition programs.
Teachers and administrators at both schools met before school began last year and throughout the year to bond and share ideas.
The unique thing about a new school, while it may not have a record of success yet, is students and teachers can create that success in their own way.
“How well they came together, it was almost like they weren’t from three different schools,” said Todd Smith, principal at Brandywine, who moved from Midway Elementary. “Coming from Midway, being recognized as a family friendly school, that was a big deal for us to create that atmosphere here. Even to hiring a parent resource room teacher to help make that connection with families.”
Smith said next year, staff wants to add to the clubs and programs they kick-started this year. That includes getting parent and community input to see what they can offer. He wants to grow the Watchdog Dads and Badger Moms programs they started.
“The administrative team, through the year we’ve been reflective together, to talk about next year the things we want to begin as new traditions or changes we want to make to make it more cohesive,” said Jennifer Bailey, an assistant principal at Brandywine.
North said she wants to add to the programs DeSana offers, too, including ideas like each athletic team completing one service project each year.
Other students also from Mexico befriended the kids who were scared to say where they were born. Shortly after, they came back to the map and asked for a sticker.
“The kids have grown up together. They really don’t see color or ethnicity or religious background first,” North said. “When teachers care about kids, what you foster in the classrooms is kids caring about kids and helping each other.”