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Scenes from the first day of school

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  • Do you remember what it was like to be a student on the first day of school? Take a ride, literally, with one of our reporters as they join North Canton Elementary on the first day of the 2023-2024 school year. #nced
  • Haywood County has endured floods, landslides, earthquakes, and the closing of the county’s largest employer, all in the last couple of years. We joined one of the district's elementary schools for the first day of school this year.
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North Canton Elementary only runs one morning bus route, and at the wheel is Carol Harkins. She has been a bus driver for 25 years and loves this job.

“I like building those relationships with these kids, and just seeing how they get so comfortable with you, that sometimes they call you mama, and just being able to give them time to talk,” she said. “These are my kids.”

A bus on the first day of school for Haywood County’s North Canton Elementary. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

The bus route winds up and down the hills and hollers of Haywood County. A nice fog has set in for the first day of school, and Harkins navigates the country roads with ease.

At the beginning of our drive, we cross a bridge, and she tells me about the time it washed out as she was delivering students home.

“I think it was the second day of school,” Harkins said.

Carol Harkins, bus driver at North Canton Elementary School. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

She is remembering Tropical Depression Fred, the storm that dumped 14 inches of rain in 12 hours, triggering flash floods and landslides in Haywood communities in 2021. Harkins recalls crossing the bridge to drop off some students, and not five minutes later, turning around and seeing that the bridge was starting to go.

She called in for support, and she, along with the rest of the students, were lifted via a bucket truck across the water. I asked if anyone was scared, and she said, “We played games. We made it fun.”

Carol Harkins has been a bus driver for 25 years in western North Carolina, the high majority of that time in Haywood. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

It is no surprise to me that the first student to get on the bus does not walk, but runs to Harkins as she opens the doors. She greets every student with a “Good morning!” and she knows them all by name.

By the time we roll back to school, the sun had burned through the fog, and students clamor off the bus, walking toward their first day of school. Descending the welcome wagon, students can see a sidewalk chalk message greeting as they head in.

A sidewalk message coming into North Canton Elementary School. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

Over the announcements to kick off the day, principal Jill Mann tells students, “I’m so excited to see all of your smiling faces!”

She’s worked in education for 22 years and has been the principal at North Canton for seven. She genuinely can’t imagine doing any other job than the one she is doing.

“My school is family. And I taught here for 14 years before I became principal. And I had to leave for one year to be an assistant and then came back as principal. And it’s just like family, we love each other. We argue like family. We love each other like family. We trust each other like family. And we believe in each other like family.”

Jill Mann, principal at North Canton Elementary
Jill Mann, principal at North Canton Elementary, on the first day morning announcements. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

What are some challenges she faces this year? Teacher vacancies, Mann said, and it is forcing her to look toward the future.

“Already, I’m nervous about staffing for next year because I do have people retiring. And I’m already nervous about how I’m going to fill their shoes with the teacher shortage — and it is real,” she said. “I mean, like no applications for jobs. Nobody applies.”

One way Mann is filling open positions is by relying on that family she talks about, past and present. The principal was having trouble finding a first grade teacher, so she reached out to Jennifer Smith. Mann worked with Smith, who was a teacher’s assistant at nearby Hazlewood Elementary School, and approached her for this open position. Smith got in touch with the Department of Public Instruction and is currently working on re-certifying her licensure.

First grade students working on the alphabet together at North Canton Elementary. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

On the flip side, one positive for Mann, among many, is the need for educators because the student population has stayed steady. Six months ago with the announcement of the town’s paper mill closure, many feared a migration of families who would be forced to move for work. Her staff who had spouses working at the mill have all found jobs and have been able to stay.

She credits the cost of living in Canton as a reason for new students. Families that may not be able to afford the Asheville area see Canton as an alternative, still close enough to the city for work.

Mann is most excited about developing relationships with new students because it really is what she is all about.

“They [the staff] know here that relationships are my number one thing — relationships with coworkers, relationships with parents, relationships with kids.”

Jill Mann, principal at North Canton Elementary

One way North Canton is solidifying teacher-student relationships is by looping. This is a practice where a teacher moves with a class from grade to grade. Mann said it’s remarkable how quickly students get back into the groove of learning when they already know their environment, their classmates, and especially their teacher. They know the rhythm of the day.

A perfect encapsulation of that is our visit to Briannah Goodson’s third grade class.

Third grade student at North Canton Elementary. Caroline Parker/EducatonNC

Walking the hallway, we see her handing students a gigantic balloon in the shape of a three, taking pictures. Inside her classroom, students are working on an exercise called “About me.” Each student fills out questions about how many pets they have, how many letters are in their name, and fun facts about them.

The students were excited — laughing, moving, and using their words. When Goodson collects the papers, the game of guessing who is who begins.

What was our main takeaway here? This is a class that knows one another. They know whose favorite food is sushi, and whose family has a jet ski. They know whose fun fact is that they are the fastest on the football field and who is the most flexible. They are eager to be the guesser, to be the person that knows their classmate best. A byproduct of this exercise is the experience of belonging, of feeling that your classmates really get you.

3rd grade class at North Canton Elementary. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

Goodson is starting her 12th year of teaching. She grew up in the area, and it is easy to see how much her students like her.

Adding her own “About me” paper in the pile, she thought it would be fun to throw a curveball to the students, assuming they wouldn’t know who this profile belonged to. Students’ hands flew in the air as they knew immediately who this paper described. They knocked her curveball right out of the park.

Goodson is most nervous about the end-of-grade testing this year.

“It’s their first year doing the EOG. So it’s a big, big challenge for them. I hope to guide them,” she said.

What is she most excited about for the school year? Watching them grow.

From floods and landslides during a pandemic, to the closing of the county’s largest employer, this district has seen monumental challenges over the past couple of years. No matter the setback, Haywood County and its residents continue to remain and be ever hopeful.

The principal of this school has been a witness to it all.

“What’s given me hope is I think Canton has been through all things. I think we’ve experienced all things. And we see that our children and our teachers and the employees — we come back. And so we’ve seen how strong they are. So we can go nowhere but up because we’re so strong… Our hope is for a normal year, if that’s possible, but even if it’s not, we know we get through it.”

Jill Mann, Principal of North Canton Elementary

More faces and scenes from the first day of school at North Canton Elementary

From top left to right, this is Lily, Jordan, and Lily Ann – all burgeoning third grade reporters.
The doors at North Canton Elementary are all pseudo chalk boards and are decorated for the first day of school with encouraging messages. Caroline Parker/EducationNC
A proud student on her first day, of first grade showing off her shirt. Caroline Parker/EducationNC
Caroline Parker

Caroline Parker is the director of rural storytelling and strategy for EducationNC. She covers the stories of rural North Carolina, the arts, STEM education and nutrition.