LUMBERTON — Tens of thousands of students and educators from across the county are getting themselves ready for a new school year, though some may be more ready for than others.
“I am pretty nervous, I might make new friends but I don’t want to be separated from my old ones,” said Caitlin Nance, 14, who will be starting at Fairmont High School this year.
The Public Schools of Robeson County on Monday will welcome 24,000 students back to the system’s 42 schools.
To Nance and her friend Emma Barnes, 15, who will be going to Lumberton High School, a new year means no longer being able to see many of the friends who they have grown up with.
“I guess it is good because it is a new experience,” Barnes said. “But it’s still really hard.”
The students should be well-equipped for class. The Public Schools of Robeson County recently held its annual back-to-school celebration during which all students in the school system were given donated supplies such as book bags. Students also don’t have to worry about paying for lunch as the system qualified for a federal program in which all students, regardless of their financial status, can eat for free.
Kindergarten teacher Chrissy Smith will be starting the school year at Deep Branch Elementary School after having served her first few years in education teaching at St. Pauls Elementary. Fortunately, she says, she is taking the adjustment a little easier.
“Coming here at first I was really nervous because I really liked where I had been working but I couldn’t make that drive every day, but after a workshop with Deep Branch this summer I immediately realized that I am going to love it here,” Smith said. “I’m excited. I am always excited about teaching kindergarten. It is really fun at the very start of the year and somewhat frustrating when they first come in and you realize that you have to teach them everything. You expect them to know things like walking in a line and raising their hand, but with kindergarten kids, this is all new to them, so you have to show them everything.”
One thing that Smith and other teachers do have weighing on them is the news of the recently approved 2014-15 state budget, which some educators see as a double-edged sword. The new budget promises significant raises for newer teachers like Smith and her fellow Deep Branch teacher Clarissa Hunt, but it also eliminates things like teacher tenure for those teachers who have not already secured it, financial bonuses for teachers who are not already pursuing their masters degrees and teacher longevity pay.
“It is nice for new teachers to see this raise, the increase in our pay, but teachers who have been teaching several years should also see the benefits of all their hard work,” Smith said. “That is only fair.”
Mary Smith, who is starting her seventh year teaching biology at Lumberton High School, is one of those veteran teachers and will be seeing firsthand the effect of the new budget on her pocketbook.
“Last year was the first year I had received my longevity check and now apparently it is going to be my last one. I worked, I did my time, and apparently I won’t see it again,” she said. “It makes me a little discouraged. It does not make my job more difficult because I am going to do my job to the best of my ability no matter what I am being paid, but it does make the job more difficult because it shows that we are not valued.”
Nineteen-year teacher Edward Lowe, a chemistry and physics professor at Lumberton High School, is practicing some cautious optimism going into the new school year.
“Fast forward 19 years and the things they said would never happen have come to pass,” Lowe said. “We are working with this year’s budget but that doesn’t mean it won’t change next year. It will, because it is an election year and there will be a new crop of people with new ideas … Regardless of what they decide on the state level, we are going to do what is in the best interest of the children. They are No. 1.”
Both Hunt and Smith say that despite the concerns, neither expects to be looking to other, higher-paying school systems, as a way out.
“We’re taking what we are given,” Hunt said. “I really love working with Deep Branch. They aren’t my co-workers, they are my family. I will probably retire at Deep Branch.”
For students like 10-year-old Cameron Sweat, the biggest concern going into the school year is an age-old one having nothing to do with fiscal policies or social circles.
“I just don’t want to do all of that homework,” Sweat said. ” … I just want to play basketball.”