The air was filled with an anxious energy and a caffeine-assisted buzz — and in some areas, the beeping and booming of construction — Friday morning as Williamson County Schools students hopped off the bus or out of their cars for the first day of the school year.
This year, WCS welcomes more than 41,000 students to its classrooms. Superintendent Jason Golden pitched up at Independence High School as a portion of these students arrived for their first classes, some pulling in over an hour early to catch up with their friends in the beds of pickup trucks, some stumbling in just in the nick of time with their backpacks bobbing back and forth as they make for the front doors.
Standing in the rapidly filling Independence parking lot, Golden said a main focus for this year is developing relationships with students and caring for them emotionally.
“One of the things we focused with teachers on is three basic principles we wanted to remind all ourselves of,” he said. “It’s students first — keep students first in all your decisions. Second, develop your capacity for empathy for your students; know where they’re coming from so that you can teach them better, so that the students can be more receptive to what you’re teaching. And the third thing is don’t go it alone.”
Golden explained mental health is a big issue to tackle, and the schools have plenty of resources to put forth a community effort to protect students.
“We have a lot of good professionals — from teacher mentors to coaches, interventionists who can work directly with students, counselors, social workers — just to make sure that they don’t live in isolation in the classroom because we have a great team,” he said.
He explained technology also comes in clutch with this effort. WCS is utilizing a product called Gaggle, which monitors the schools’ electronic systems — student and teacher email, online classroom work and more — and flags certain trigger words that could identify dangerous or inappropriate activity.
The schools also recently launched an app with school news, staff directories and lots of other information, including a tip line — just one more resource to help kids struggling with mental health issues, bullying and other safety-related matters.
WCS has also prioritized safety by ensuring every building has a school resource officer, or SRO, and by continuing physical health initiatives, this year emphasizing the dangers of vaping.
“Nicotine is a drug that students shouldn’t be taking, and so, in conjunction with law enforcement, with juvenile court, we are working on ways to communicate that to students and parents as well,” Golden said.
“And one of the difficult things about vaping is you never know what that substance is that they’re breathing, so the sheriff’s department has now purchased some test kits so that they can test for illegal drugs in those vape packets.”
WCS Communications Director Carol Birdsong noted every school has one of these test kits as well.
“We’re doing some PSAs with the sheriff’s department, which we’ll get put together at some point soon, as an effort to kind of push that out to educate parents and students on that,” she said.
WCS is also continuing many construction projects to keep up with the growing district. At Independence High, a building expansion is set to finish in time for the spring semester.
“This is really designed, number one, to give some space immediately, but number two, to build with a little additional capacity,” Golden said. “That’s a big change that we’ve made over the last few years to try to get a little bit ahead of the growth in those spots that we can.”
Creekside Elementary School in Franklin is officially open as a school, temporarily meeting in Oak View Elementary, and its new campus will open in January. Additionally, a new middle school will go up on Henpeck Lane by this time next year.
Just completed and starting classes today is the new Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center by Franklin High School.
WCS held a ribbon cutting Thursday at the old Columbia State Community College Franklin campus, which has now been renovated and outfitted — in partnership with a nonprofit group formed to support the EIC, The Catalyst Network — to promote creativity and collaboration as students develop and launch their very own businesses alongside teachers, business mentors and industry experts.
Starting among the 130 new EIC students is Franklin High senior Sam Walsh. He said he’s excited to start something new and hopes to contribute to the community through his work in the program.
“I’m all about trying to find problems and being able to solve them, and this program provides that opportunity for me,” Walsh said. “Some of the products that I heard from other EIC businesses have really benefited the community, … so I want to be able to make something here that could do the same thing.”
The Catalyst Network is holding a fundraiser for the EIC Thursday, Aug. 22 at the facility at 5:30 p.m. To learn more, visit eiccatalystnetwork.org.
For more information about WCS, go to wcs.edu.