The ritual was familiar for Christy Evans-Smith.
As she walked across the playground at Independence Elementary beside her daughter, 9-year-old Kyleyah Smith on Aug. 11, Evans-Smith didn't break into tears. She didn't show the emotional struggle that was clear on the faces of dozens of other parents dropping off their children for the first day of kindergarten or first grade.
Instead, Evans-Smith sported a sizable smile and seemed to share the excitement of her daughter, who was set to begin fourth grade classes at Independence after transferring from Eastridge Elementary. Evans-Smith's sense of calm came in part from many years of practice.
"Kyleyah has a 24-year-old sister, so we're doing this all over again," said Evans-Smith, who works in the Cherry Creek School District's Food and Nutrition Services department. "Her sister went to this school, her cousins went to this school, I grew up in this neighborhood. I'm still very protective, but I'm a little more at ease. I don't cry on the first day anymore."
Evans-Smith and her daughter joined the families of the more than 500 Independence Elementary students on the back playground at Independence on Thursday morning. The Independence community joined students, teachers and staff across the Cherry Creek School District as they formally kicked off the 2016-17 school year.
Before the buzz of the first bell echoed across the school grounds, parents offered comforting words to their kids and teachers held up signs bearing their names and grade levels. The gathering had the feel of a community meeting, as old friends reconnected and new arrivals made their first steps at forging important connections.
The convivial mood was no accident.
"For us, it's a philosophy that we want to pass along to our daughter. You work in the community that gives you everything ... I was born and raised here in Aurora. To be able to go into a school here and work with kids, work with my daughter, it's coming full circle. It's very important that we give this value to Ava and that she understands that it's expected of her."
-- Travis Matheny, father of a first-grader at Independence Elementary
"A sense of community is really important here at Independence. That's not only with our students, but it's a sense of community amongst our staff as well as our parents," said Independence Principal Lisa Morris. "We want everyone to feel welcome and a part of our school. We do a variety of events (throughout the year) that invite our families in to be a part of our school community."
That effort wasn't lost on Travis Matheny and Ashley Port, parents who lingered near the back doors as their 6-year-old daughter, Ava, circulated among the crowd of students and teachers before kicking off her first day as a first-grader. The day was a milestone for the parents, but neither betrayed any sense of stress. Ava's year at Independence as a kindergartener has given both a strong sense of confidence and community.
"It's been way different this year. We knew what to do," Port said. "I was a mess last year. I'm way more comfortable. There have been a few tears, but no so much. I know she loves coming to school. This year, I'm totally ready for her to get back to her routine, because she loves it."
The couple's sense of comfort stemmed partly from their work in the Independence community. For Matheny, an Aurora native and a graduate of Overland High School, contributing to the school and the district was an important value from Ava's first day at Independence.
"For us, it's a philosophy that we want to pass along to our daughter. You work in the community that gives you everything," he said. "I was born and raised here in Aurora. To be able to go into a school here and work with kids, work with my daughter, it's coming full circle. It's very important that we give this value to Ava and that she understands that it's expected of her."
Both parents expected to fill that role long into Ava's academic career in Cherry Creek Schools. They praised the districts and school's efforts to keep parents informed about happenings districtwide. Thanks to Matheny's status as an alum of the district and a steady stream of input from the district itself, both know what to expect as they look to their daughter's future as a middle schooler and high school student.
"As a parent, I like how they keep us informed," Port said. "Even if my kid's not in high school, I know what the high school kids are doing and accomplishing on a district-wide basis."