Nicholas Castlebury took the first day of school at Horizon Middle School as an opportunity to properly introduce himself.
Castlebury offered his 6th-grade social studies class an in-depth, multi-media presentation about his family, his friends, his tastes in music and even his pets. Before he presented the students any lessons about history and government, he wanted to make sure they had a sense of his personality and background.
The reason, he explained to the students, was simple.
"I'm an open book," Castlebury said. "And we truly are a family."
Castlebury was just one of many teachers, staff members and administrators at Horizon Middle School in Aurora working hard to create a sense of community and common purpose on the first day of the Cherry Creek School District's traditional school calendar on Aug. 13. Across the building, teachers interacted with parents dropping off their kids for the first day of middle school and pointed families in the right direction. Horizon Principal Nickie Bell was a part of that welcoming crowd, greeting new and old students alike and working hard to make the transition easier for the parents whose sons and daughters were taking the first steps on a new academic path.
"I always remember to wear my mom hat. I'm a mom, and I'll be a mom forever. I'm there with parents for back-to-school night and orientation, and I remember when I brought my son to his first day of 6th grade," Bell said. "I cried and cried and cried. I felt so silly – as a professional, I knew the principal, I knew the administrators, I knew the teachers. Yet, my baby was growing up and stepping a little bit out of the nest. It's a moment you'll never forget as a parent."
Bell and her staff worked hard to keep the parents' and students' reactions in mind as they welcomed hundreds of middle school students for their first day. As thousands of K-12 students across the district reported for classes at dozens of buildings, the Horizon Middle School crew wanted to instill an early sense of familial welcome to the campus.
Bell has had some practice. The 2015-16 school year marks Bell's fifteenth year in the district. She came to the principal post at Horizon last November, and this was her inaugural 'first day' as the school's principal.
"My image for the year is restoration. The root word is not 'rest' … This is the year that we are working hard on focusing on our Professional Learning Communities and our departments are really going to shine and do what's best for kids," Bell said. "Our mission this year is excellence every day for everyone. We're going to see that."
That mission started before the students reported to their first classes, as the school hosted orientation events and guided parents through curriculum and other elements at back-to-school nights.
It's a personal touch that made a difference for Jennifer and Ken Ott, parents of new Horizon 6th-grader Cory. The family attended back-to-school nights and orientation events to prepare for the big shift from elementary to middle school. As the pair stood outside Horizon and headed to Sunrise Elementary School to drop off their other son, 7-year-old Noah, they felt as if they knew what was in store for Cory.
"It was not too bad. The school did a good job of preparing us, and it was really smooth," Jennifer Ott said. "They sent us letters and offered classes last week that were really helpful … That really helped us prepare."
Even so, the pair will have to make adjustments as their two sons leave the roost for the beginning of the school year.
"We get a little sad," she said. "We both work at home, and the kids are with us all the time."
"We don't know what we're going to do today," Ken Ott added.