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Weather, trains a hiccup on smooth first day of school

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Early student count is way under projection

By Todd Martin

An uncharacteristically dense fog greeted students and parents Wednesday morning for the first day of classes at Shelby County Public Schools.

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Although the thick soup caused some minor delays, the first day otherwise went off without a hitch.

“We just told the bus drivers not to sweat the schedule today, just get everyone in safely,” said Kerry Whitehouse, the district assistant superintendent of operations. “I was at Simpsonville [Elementary], and most of the buses were on schedule, but there were a couple running a little behind. Overall it wasn’t too bad. That was pretty much the same report I got from all the schools: maybe a couple buses a little late.”

And the fog wasn’t the only curveball the district had to face.

Norfolk Southern Railroad operates the line that runs in front of Southside Elementary and across 7th and Kentucky streets and Mack Walters and Old Finchville roads.

The railroad was scheduled to make some repairs to the intersections with those roads on Tuesday and Wednesday but declined to let the school officials know.

“I called [on Tuesday] when we found out, and they assured us that they would work with us on the road closings,” Whitehouse said. “We’ve had a better relationship with Norfolk Southern over the last few years than we ever had, so I’m not really sure what happened.”

Once the district was aware of the issue, it released a One-Call to alert parents of the road being closed between 8:30 and 10:30.

The railroad had stated the repairs would take about an hour or less and planned to only close one at a time. However, all the intersections were closed by 7:45 a.m., causing a delay for one bus.

“We had one bus for Southside that had to be rerouted because of the closings, and it was about fifteen or twenty minutes late in the morning,” Whitehouse said. “But all the repairs were finished by the time we let out in the afternoon.”

Despite the railroad and fog issues, Whitehouse said he was happy with the first day’s transportation, which routinely can be a challenge to start the year.

“We’re evaluating routes as we go, and I was very pleased with our drivers and the garage this morning,” he said. “We had a few students miss the bus, but several drivers swung back to pick them up. Overall it was a good first day.”

And officials all over the district seemed to agree with Whitehouse.

A smooth start

“It’s been a fabulous morning,” said J.J. Black, principal at Heritage Elementary. “We’ve had a lot of parent visitors this morning, and we like that. Everything has gone smoothly; it’s been a really great start. We’ve had no problems at all.”

Other schools looked smooth as well as the first day rolled on.

But that didn’t stop some parents and students from becoming emotional on that first day.

“We have a lot of smiling faces this morning, very few tears or long faces,” Southside Elementary Principal Susie Burkhardt said.

At Simpsonville and Wright elementary schools, long lines with parents looking to drop off slightly excited and overwhelmed kindergarten and first-grade students snaked out onto the main roads but maintained a slow pace to the front door thanks to help from police directing traffic.

With Wright being located so close to neighborhoods, several parents took the opportunity to avoid the traffic and walk their children to school.

Wes and Carrie Johnson walked kindergartner Aspen and first-grader Aiden to school, and even joined with Todd Freeman as he walked his daughter Madison, a fourth-grader.

All were excited, but Aspen seemed a little anxious for her first day.

“I’m excited,” she said. But she wasn’t sure what she was going to do. “I don’t know, learn and play, I guess,” she said.

Traffic, both for driving students and buses, flowed smoothly at Shelby County High School, and at Collins cars and buses were treated to a welcoming shower.

Senior class president Ryan Ruff along with Sydney Cloyd and Michael Atkins greeted students on their way up Discovery Boulevard with a blast from water guns. The three seniors stood with a "Welcome Back" sign, a tub of water and water guns, and peppered oncoming cars with a stream of water, causing many to blare their horns in approval.

That excitement carried to Collins Principal John Leeper, who welcomed students by opening car doors and shaking hands as he encouraged returning students to have a great first day of class.

Black and teachers and administrators at East Middle all greeted students with high-fives as they came on campus.

Student enrollment

The first day showed a significant decrease from the projected enrollment.

At the end of Wednesday the district’s first-day count of students was 6,598, down 9 from last year’s first day count and 248 from the 2013-14 projected enrollment.

But that number normally increases, especially on the Monday following the abbreviated opening week.

Last year’s enrollment increased by 48 on the second day, and by the end of the first month the average enrollment was 6,706, 99 more than on opening day.

This year’s projected enrollment of 6,846 is based on the expected first-month average.

 

Sentinel-News Staff Writers Lisa King and Cameron Koch contributed to this story.