Walking down the halls within Celeste Henkel Elementary, I can hear laughter, cheering, and various responses to teacher-posed questions. As students pass me in the halls, I receive waves and a series of greetings that not only make me smile outwardly but warm my heart.
Approaching the second-grade hall, I spot Mrs. Behrendt, our school counselor, talking quietly with a student as he walks Toby, our school therapy dog. Once again, I smile to myself and proceed to enter a classroom quietly. The students are actively engaged in various activities while the teacher circulates the classroom, assisting when needed. A student stops me and says, “I lost a tooth last night.” I instantly respond, “I hope you had a visit from the tooth fairy.” Her eyes widen, followed by a nod and a thumbs up — the tooth fairy was faithful once again.
I slip out quietly and head up the stairs to visit our fourth and fifth-grade classrooms. Many students are eager to share their learning, and I am keen to hear about their acquired knowledge. No, I’m not describing our school before the pandemic; it’s what is happening every day since we re-opened our doors on Aug. 17, 2020.
On July 1, 2020, I walked into the front office at 6:45 a.m., ready to begin my principalship. Considering the current climate, I should have been somewhat anxious or at least nervous about taking on a new role at a new school amidst a pandemic. But truth be told, I wasn’t nervous at all. Instead, I walked in with a sense of calm and was greeted by the office staff and four custodians. I didn’t feel like the new guy. Instead, I was made to feel part of the team, and I quickly felt at home. Within hours, we organized storage closets, rearranged offices, toured the school to determine inventory needs, and developed a game plan to be ready for the new school year. We worked hard and long hours and did our best to follow the Health Department's recommendations to reopen schools.
I wondered how the students and staff would fare with all the protocols, especially wearing face coverings and maintaining social distancing. These were two practices no one had ever had to follow within the school setting, at least not in our lifetime. We did our best to anticipate pushback and made provisions for our incoming kindergarteners.
The first day went better than expected. In fact, it was truly memorable. We, the students and staff, were all equally excited to be back at school! The students entered a familiar place and quickly embraced so many unfamiliar protocols and rules because it meant we could keep our doors open!
It’s been almost eight months since I walked into my new school, and the excitement and drive to persevere is stronger than ever. Our students and staff have been champions throughout each challenge. Their resilience and determination have been inspiring in so many ways. To date, we have had a series of positive COVID cases and have quarantined students and staff when necessary. However, we have not seen one secondary transmission, and almost all of the positive cases have resulted from contacts outside of the school building.
Our students are thriving at school and are smiling beneath their face coverings. Children need community to grow both mentally and emotionally. They need healthy competition to help their potential blossom. And they need opportunities to share their hopes and dreams, even when the world is experiencing a challenge.
In one of my first messages to the parents of our students, I stated, “The heartbeat of every educator is to do what is best for kids. We are not perfect, but our intentions and purpose are driven by our passion for igniting a love for learning within all our students. It takes a village to raise and teach the whole child — and our village is strong.”
As a principal, I have been blessed with a formidable staff. They are genuinely glad to be at work each day and have a classroom full of talented, intriguing, and multi-faceted students who bring them purpose and joy. It may be a different school year in so many ways, but there is enough of the familiar to keep us moving forward.
As a community, we ask for your continued support and well-wishes. If you have a business and wish to donate to our school, please feel free to contact me, Frank Saraco, or Mrs. Weber, our assistant principal, at 704-873-7333. We have been upgrading our technology within the school and have several projects that still need funding. Thank you for your consideration. Also, if you have a rising kindergartener and Celeste is your home school, we are now scheduling after-school tours beginning at 2:45 p.m. To schedule a tour, please contact the school between 7:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. And remember — at Celeste Henkel, home of the Hornets, we strive to THRIVE in and out of the HIVE.
Franck Saraco is the principal at Celeste-Henkel Elementary School.