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Butterflies and Backpacks

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New principals have their own first day jitters

By Kenny Colston

It’s a few days before the first day of school and Craig Wallace isn’t sleeping well.

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The fact is Wallace usually doesn’t sleep well this time of year. He didn’t as a teacher or an as associate principal. It’s just too exciting to sleep. To Wallace, the first day of school is unrivaled, like a trip to Disney World or the night before a big holiday.

“It’s like going to bed on Christmas Eve,” he said of his feelings the night before the first day.

Craig Wallace can’t sleep, but it’s just fine as he takes over the reigns at North Oldham High School, with some big plans on the horizon.

But Wallace isn’t alone in his insomnia.

“I haven’t slept since Sunday,” Candice McDaniel, principal at Crestwood Elementary, tells parents in the school’s library, doubling as a “boo hoo, woo hoo” room on the first day of school, a Wednesday. “I went to bed at 2:30 and woke up at 5:30.”

If McDaniel isn’t sleeping, it wasn’t showing as she high-fived student after student, offering an encouraging “good morning” and a smile as groggy elementary bus riders filed past her on the first day.

The enthusiasm is something the veteran principal employs to gauge her students every morning.

“That’s why I give high-fives and say good morning to get them excited to see their faces,” she said. “I may be the first person to say good morning to them that day.”

Down the street from McDaniel is Steve Emerson, new principal at South Oldham Middle School.

The ex-football player stands outside the car rider line on the first day, offering small waves and smiles to parents and students. Those up for it get a firm handshake and likely a joke or two.

Fresh off a win last night, a member of the junior varsity football team gets an “atta boy” for the victory over Shelby West Middle School.

A taller than usual student is encouraged to try out for the basketball team.

“Coach is gonna love you,” Emerson shouts.

For many, the first day of school is focused on kindergarten or high school. A milestone, a parent’s tears or joy or on a fresh-out-of-college teacher’s nervous excitement at putting his or her first lesson to work.

But for three Oldham County Schools’ principals, it’s their first day, too. One, McDaniel, has been a principal for a while, but returns to the district in which she got her first administrative job. For Emerson and Wallace, it’s the first day in the big office.

For a few days before the first day of school and on the actual first day, the Era spent time talking with and shadowing OCS’ three new principals for the 2014-15 school year.

And they are just as nervous, anxious and excited as the students and teachers are sharing a first day. They may seem composed on the outside, but their insides are turning.

“Oooooh yes I still get butterflies,” McDaniel said. “I still can’t sleep the night before.”

Growing the spirit

Since its first day in 2003, the halls of North Oldham High School have always contained Craig Wallace.

At first, it was as a biology and chemistry teacher, with interesting subjects like forensics and environmental science. Then Wallace was promoted to associate principal, the second in command at the school.

Now, after 11 years at North, Wallace has the school’s top job, one he doesn’t take lightly.

Wallace is the fourth person, counting interim principals, to hold the title at Oldham County School’s newest high school. And as the school hits its teenage years, Wallace said his goal is to expand the school’s reach to students and teachers.

Some of the highlights of Wallace’s plan include more professional development for teachers and increased focus on students who aren’t in advanced programs or other honor track classes.

“From an academic standpoint, what we have been really good at is pushing our best students to unprecedented levels,” Wallace said. “We have an 80 percent pass rate for AP [advanced placement], maybe only one other school in the state can say that. And that’s increased 40 percent.

But at the same time, there’s not as much attention and focus on students who aren’t AP students.”

That will change, he said, even as North adds two new advanced courses this year. And one way the increased focus will come is by having professional development for teachers centered on entry-level classes and non-honors secondary classes in math and English, Wallace said.

A few days later on the first day of school, Wallace stands in the middle of an quiet foyer at the entrance to his school. In a few minutes, the empty hallways will be flooded with freshmen to seniors, thankful they have logged another first day largely unscathed.

As he waits, Wallace waves and talks to students who have a head start on their peers. He checks in with a substitute teacher on how the first day went and he encourages a reluctant senior to embrace her final year and head to a college she really wants to go to, not one picked for her.

The bell rings and Wallace, who stands above six feet tall, suddenly becomes almost invisible among the shuffle of students heading to buses and cars.

Wallace’s other main goal is to foster the elusive community a new school like North has been attempting to create. More than 10 years in, students who can identify mostly as North campus students have filtered through the nearby elementary and middle schools to the main high school in Goshen.

But the Mustang community hasn’t quite solidified yet, something the headman hopes to change.

“I think students want to build a stronger school spirit,” he said. “We need to celebrate who we are, what we are about. We need to recognize our champion teams.”

In the past, Wallace said, it wasn’t unusual for a state champion team to wait months to be celebrated in a pep rally, if at all. This year, there will be pep rallies, he said, champions or not.

As the halls empty, Wallace heads out front to check on the buses. Students have jammed up the exits, keeping buses in the parking lot a little longer. Wallace notes that the changing of a school resource officer left the school a little delayed in handling traffic jams. But it’s something Wallace will work on.

The married father of two takes in his official first day of school as principal. It’s a job he cherishes, but not one he expects to be in forever.

“I haven’t spent too much time thinking about it,” he said. “But I can’t imagine a scenario where I’ll be principal for 15 years.”

With a son at Harmony Elementary and a daughter at North Oldham Middle School, Wallace isn’t in a hurry to leave. But he notes he has a superintendent certification.

And even though he’s been at the school for 11 years, he’s not taking anything for granted this year.

“I don’t think anything this year will be routine at all,” he said. “Because mostly what I do this year I’ve never done before. One of the exciting parts is it’s all brand new.”

Up and down

At South Oldham Middle School, a new principal is taking over the big desk for the third time in as many years.

In his 27th year in education, it would seem the school’s latest principal, Emerson, wouldn’t be around too long, that another change could be down the road.

Not so fast, Emerson said.

“Where most people are winding down and thinking about what to do with the rest of my life, I’m ramping up,” he said. “I’m starting year 27 and I’m as excited as I have ever been.”

Like Wallace, Emerson said his time spent as the school’s associate principal couldn’t fully prepare him to take over the top job.

“This summer has been very packed full,” he said. “I haven’t taken much time off.”

Emerson spent 12 years at Harrison County High School at the start of his education career as a social studies teacher. He met his wife there and once they started a family, a move to Oldham County, where his wife’s family lives, was in the works.

After a few years at Buckner Alternative High School, first as a teacher then as an administrator, Emerson landed at SOMS as an associate principal.

Now as the school’s top official, Emerson doesn’t have an expiration date.

“I love South, it’s where I want to be,” he said. “I’m blessed to be a Dragon and I see no end date at this point.”

At the beginning of his term, Emerson said increasing the school’s elective offerings is at the top of his list. For the first time, SOMS will offer Spanish classes this year, he said, and there will be an expanded offering of advanced courses.

“I want all kids to be challenged,” Emerson said.

Outside of academics, fostering a welcoming environment is second on the list.

“I want this to be a school where parents feel welcome, students, teachers and the community,” he said. “I want just a place where people want to be.”

That’s why he’s out there welcoming students and parents on the first day. It’s why there will be new activities in the morning, music played over the speakers and more. Emerson wants students to be bold and not afraid to fail and for teachers to have the same mentality.

And while it’s been “a roller coaster” so far, the new guy is still gripping the handlebars tightly.

“This is where I want to be when I retire,” he said. “If I could write the end of the novel, this could be it.”

Returning home

Candice McDaniel may be new to Crestwood, but she’s not a stranger to OCS or to being an administrator.

A former principal at Goshen Elementary, McDaniel comes from Shacklette Elementary, part of neighboring Jefferson County Public Schools.

A move out of OCS was hard, but necessary to grow as an administrator, McDaniel said.

“I had spent the majority of my career working with a similar demographic,” she said. “I wanted to see if we could do the same things with different demographics.”

And now, McDaniel wants to try those same methods out in a different OCS school, Crestwood.

Those ideas span the spectrum, from getting more technology in students’ hands to use, to the possibility of “Saturday School” for struggling students.

“Students walk in with these devices in their hands and when they come in we tell them to put it away and go back to pen and paper,” she said. “I want to teach them how to use the device they have in their hand.”

Implementing those types of programs helped at her previous stop, McDaniel said, and are possibilities for Crestwood, which is already a blue ribbon school, just like Goshen.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Education, the National Blue Ribbon Schools Program recognizes public and private elementary, middle, and high schools where students perform at very high levels or where significant improvements are being made in students’ academic achievement.

The main goals, McDaniel said, is to be more vocal about Crestwood’s blue ribbon status and to invite the community in to sustain that.

“We’re a blue ribbon school,” she said. “And it’s not necessarily something new but building on the foundation already there. And welcoming the community in so they can see what’s going on.”

McDaniel said the community can get involved by becoming a Cougar Buddy, where they mentor a student during at least their time at Crestwood, if not further.

And while she’s spent time elsewhere, McDaniel is certain she was placed at Crestwood because of God’s will.

“Crestwood is where I want to be,” she said. “I’m here and it’s good to be home.”

Email us about this story at editor@oldhamera.com.