Sixth-, ninth-graders learn their way around new Wichita schools

Twelve-year-old Hunter Tharp gave his lock a few twists to the right, then the left, then the right, then the left.

And … click.

It opened.

Just like a new school year – the first one ever for students and staff at Christa McAuliffe Academy in Wichita.

On Tuesday, Hunter and about 125 other sixth-graders were the first to meet their teachers, decipher their class schedules and pile books into lockers at the K-8 school, one of five new Wichita schools opening this fall.

“We were so excited to see those buses pull up this morning,” said Jesseb Adam, a social studies teacher at McAuliffe. “All summer we’ve been planning and waiting, and now the day is finally here.”

Most of Wichita’s 50,000 students will return to class Wednesday, but sixth- and ninth-graders attended an early half-day orientation Tuesday to learn their way around new buildings.

At McAuliffe, near Pawnee and 143rd Street East in the southeast reaches of the Wichita district, students and parents marveled at the size and scope of the new school, with its three classroom wings, 800-seat auditorium, science labs, gymnasium and a main hallway that seemed miles long.

“We’re getting pedometers,” joked Rob Garcia, the school’s head custodian, as he pushed a cart down the hall.

Principal Shawn Springer said the school’s sixth-grade enrollment was larger than expected as well. He had to hire a new teacher on Monday, just hours before orientation, to handle the overflow and to teach sixth-grade math, language arts and social studies.

“We’re making adjustments right up to the start, but we knew that could happen,” Springer said.

Lynn Calderwood, the new teacher, joked with students Tuesday that she was learning her way around just like them. The shelves in her room were empty and the walls blank except for an American flag hanging near the smart board.

“It’s nice to see you,” she told her second-hour class, then told the students to introduce themselves by saying their name and their favorite cookie.

“My name is Mrs. Calderwood,” she said. “And my favorite cookie is Oreos.”

Shirley Mamoth, a middle school science teacher, said she had eagerly awaited seeing students in the hallways at McAuliffe. Teachers have been meeting, planning and moving into their classrooms over the summer.

“It’s so exciting,” said Mamoth, who taught last year at Washington Elementary in Wichita. “I feel like I’m one of the sixth-graders.”

Alicia Thompson, assistant superintendent for elementary schools, said the first days of a new school year are “always a juggle,” as new students show up at schools or transfer to new ones.

This year, the first since the school board adopted new attendance boundaries, could be especially tricky. Most families registered their children, filled out paperwork and got bus assignments during enrollment week earlier this month, Thompson said, but some may not have.

“We did a pretty good job on estimating where kids would go and what the enrollment would look like,” she said.

“But we always have a teacher or two move around or shift so we can keep appropriate class sizes. … There will be some of that. But we are ready and equipped to handle that.”

RSP & Associates, a Kansas City-area consulting firm hired by the district, analyzed housing patterns and other data to make enrollment projections that were used to craft the new boundary plan the board approved in March.

Officials will not know exact numbers or report official enrollment counts, however, until after Sept. 20, the day students statewide are counted to determine the district’s per-student state funding for the year.

At McAuliffe, a poster on one classroom door featured a Chinese proverb: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Sixth-grader Antoine Pearson took his first step Tuesday, successfully opening his locker to retrieve notebooks, pencils and other supplies.

“I like it,” he said of his new school. “It’s big, and it’s nice. … I think it will be fun.”

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