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“Having young people in the building, and seeing their faces, and hearing their chatter, and listening to young people laughing and giggling and talking on the playground, those are sounds we’ve not heard in a long time.”

– Superintendent Bryan Taylor, Hickory Public Schools

When I heard David Stegall, deputy superintendent of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, was going to be visiting Hickory Public Schools with regional director Stephanie Dischiavi to welcome students back to school, I asked if I could tag along.

Dischiavi lives in Hickory and worked in Hickory Public Schools for 20+ years. Having served as a principal in three of the schools, she knows this district.

There is nothing quite like that back-to-school feeling. This year, for sure, it is a mix of excitement, anticipation, and worry. We want our students and educators to be safe. We want them in school and learning.

COVID or no COVID, the first day of school is still the first day of school. And especially for our littles and even more for our kindergartners, it is full of all the feelings.

Alexander Russo writes about education news coverage in a newsletter called “The Grade.” What is interesting about his perspective is that it is his job to monitor all of the coverage of education nationwide. Here is what he had to say about back to school:

“MISSING THE BIG PICTURE | It’s easy to lose track of where things stand during this particularly hectic back-to-school season during which things seem to be changing quickly and media coverage focuses on conflict and danger. So here’s what I know: The vast majority of school districts are planning to reopen this year in person. The vast majority of parents say that they’re planning to send their kids back. And while an increasing number of districts are offering remote options and kids in parts of the country haven’t gone back yet, only a relative handful of districts have been experiencing outbreaks, shutting down school, or pushing back start dates. Tens of thousands more schools are open for in-person instruction than last year — and millions more kids are heading back to school in person. It’s a vast improvement over last year, and so far it’s going better than the coverage may lead you to believe.”

The sun was rising on my way to Viewmont Elementary adding to the bubble-up excitement I always have on the way to a school. Just like the start of the day, the start is school is full of hope.

Principal Jeff Hodakowski welcomes a student back to school.

I hope you can feel the joy of our visit with the students, parents, educators, and administrators that make up the community of the Viewmont Bears. Bears is an acronym, and it stands for:

Building Excellence And Relationships Simultaneously

Welcome to Viewmont Elementary and meet Superintendent Bryan Taylor

Superintendent Bryan Taylor is new to this district, but he is not new to education. Dr. Bryan Graham, chair of the HPS Board of Education, said, “Dr. Taylor has an impressive breadth of experience as a North Carolina educator, having held a range of positions including teacher, coach, principal, director and executive director, assistant superintendent, and superintendent.”

The morning I visited, Taylor walked in the school and immediately started greeting students.

He made friends quickly. A conversation with kindergartner Khyza Jones about this Spiderman lunch box helped a whole lot.

“We all talk about being student focused, but this is why I do what I do.”

– Superintendent Taylor

After welcoming the students on the buses and in the carpool line, we headed to the classrooms.

Check out Room 60!

As we walked in room 60, the students were busy checking out computers, eating breakfast picked up on the way into class, and reading. If a chair is upside down on the desk, it means the student hasn’t arrived to school yet.

Anyea Gibson, the 2020-21 Hickory Public Schools Teacher of the Year, is teaching fifth grade this year.

Gibson is supervising a student teacher from Appalachian State University. Keely Lindler wants to make sure school is the best eight hours of each child’s day.

Which brings us to relationships

Taylor is a strong believer in relationships.

“Relationships are the foundation of everything we do,” he said.

The start of school is about building those relationships with students. “Right now,” he continued, “we are connecting with these young people from our community.”

Principal Jeff Hodakowski says his school is known for building those relationships not just with students, but with their families. In addition to thinking about how to meet the needs of the whole child, he thinks about the needs of the whole family.

It starts, he said, with opening the communication lines between the parents and the school. He embraces the question, “How can you help my family?”

Taylor said his goal this school year and every school year is “to make sure that each young person’s future is not determined by their address.”

About Hickory Public Schools

“We are going to provide the best education we can to the students we serve.”

– Superintendent Taylor
Hickory Public Schools is located in Catawba County.

Hickory Public Schools includes nine schools: five elementary schools, two middle schools, Hickory High School, and Hickory Career & Arts Magnet. The district served 3,791 students in 2020-21.

A special shout out to Sandi Fotheringham who recently received the Order of the Longleaf Pine for 47 years of service to public schools.

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Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.