Walker High teacher Lindsay Palermo could rival airline workers who direct passengers getting off of planes.
“What do you need before you go in?” she asked two students approaching the front office as school began Wednesday in Livingston Parish.
“What is your name? Landry? In the library,” she quickly directed one student before using her cell phone to tell another where his homeroom was.
Palermo’s secret was class and student lists she was emailed that she could quickly check, reducing the traffic into the front office.
“We can make it," she said, watching as students entered the cafeteria or the hallways before the first bell.
The teacher’s assessment could have applied to Walker High or the overall Livingston Parish school system as it began a new year only days from the anniversary of the flooding event that rocked the parish.
Other forms of traffic also went well on the first day.
“Things went well this morning. We’re hoping for the same this afternoon," said Transportation Supervisor Jeff Frizell at mid-morning,
“We’re working through congestion down Springfield Road with the new junior high, otherwise we’re doing as well as to be expected.”
A total of 55 new buses have joined the school system’s fleet, Frizell said, and they have been distributed to drivers. They replace buses lost in August’s flooding.
South Walker Elementary Principal Belinda Avant said there were no problems with the recently opened one-lane roundabout on Walker South Road south of Interstate 12.
“I’ve driven through it, and it only took 3 minutes,” she said.
School officials will be watching enrollments, which ties into the MFP funding from the state. By the end of the 2016-17 school year, the school system was down about 500 students from the 26,000 enrolled on the opening day in August.
As more families got homes repaired and returned during the summer, their children will be returning to parish schools, School Superintendent Rick Wentzel has said.
Kindergarten students will begin reporting on Monday, Aug. 14, boys on one day and girls on another.
“We went to school for, I think, six days before we got hit with the devastation, but we’re all excited (for this year),” said Live Oak High Principal Beth Jones. “We know that this year has got to be much better.
“But I was really proud of our staff and students from last year, getting our scores back and looking at how well they did on AP, club, EOC, ACT — they didn’t have a drop off last year.
“In fact, they increased, especially in our AP scores,” she added. “We had more students test out of college credit than we’ve ever had.”
“It’s good to get that fresh start – a lot of people completely forgot about how good our first two weeks of school were last year,” said Bryan Wax, principal of Denham Springs Junior High.
“While our cosmetic stuff isn’t 100 percent done, our teachers and I are 100 percent prepared to get in there with the kids and have a good school year.
“We’ve had three nights of orientation and open houses and we’ve been able to see them,” Wax said, “and those open houses get them excited so on the first day they’re ready to go.”
In south Livingston, the opening day went smoothly at Frost School, which serves students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.
A total of 363 students enrolled for the school year, after ending the year at 270 after the flood, Principal Stacy Wise said.
The opening day went without a hitch, she said.
“We put a lot of prayer into this day, and this is all about a team effort from those who work around here,” Wise said.
“It’s because what we do here is the work of heart – it’s not a job, it’s a calling.
“We put our heart and soul into our school, and our community always shows us great support,” she said. “We’re very fortunate.”
Denham Springs Freshman High Principal Ken Magee also was seeing the positive side of a new school year.
“We have no water, a lot of repairs … and shiny new halls,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of good repairs over the summer, and a whole lot of excited teachers.
“When they left at the start of the summer, it wasn’t looking so pretty – but we know the repairs are something they are proud of and we’re very appreciative of the School Board and the work they did to get us back,"he said.
And some traditions continued, as parent Steve Bernard was on hand at South Walker Elementary to take photos of his daughter, third-grader Isabella Bernard, getting off the bus.
“Our son Chase came to South Walker and we took photos. This is the best elementary school in the parish,” Bernard said.
Avant also welcomed back brothers Jacob and Brian Coke, who were returning to South Walker, by directing them to their classes.
“We are looking forward to this year tremendously,” said Michelle Wheeler, Live Oak Elementary principal. “That’s the thing about school: Every year you get a fresh start, and we’re excited about that.
“Our hearts go out to everybody who was flooded. I was flooded myself,” she said. “I’m now in the process of moving back into my home.
“I’ve been out of my home for about a year. We lived in a FEMA for six months. We’re still moving in from the FEMA trailer. We’re very close.
“Everybody has been very upbeat. The meetings the past few days have been positive and very upbeat. We’re excited to see the kids and excited to get started.”
Wheeler said, “Well, we lost fifth grade last year, so we ended last year with like 660, but we’re already back up to 550, so we’re experiencing a lot of growth.
“Personally, I think it’s people in Denham Springs that are still displaced, (who) don’t have homes rebuilt or rental property or whatever,” she said. “So they’re looking another option.”
Elsewhere, Springfield High got rolling after the majority of the summer was spent refurbishing the school.
“We spent most of the summer doing maintenance,” Springfield Principal Spencer Harris said. “We replaced every inch of flooring on our campus, all our tiles, new carpet in the band room, rubber flooring in the fieldhouse.
“Everything on the campus had to be moved out – all of our desks, everything was moved to the gym. And then once all of the floors were finished, waxed, walls painted, millwork done – then we had to move everything back.”
Harris said he was also pleased with the school’s enrollment numbers, which he said dipped slightly over last year.
“I’m expecting us to be around 380 this year,” Harris said. “We’re probably about 15 kids less than what I thought we would have been pre-flood at this time, but it’s pretty close.
“The thing about it is, a great majority of our community did flood, but only a few were forced to leave. Some had to move … and most of those have moved back.”
Harris also replaced 13 staff members over the summer – a high turnover for a school Springfield’s size. But Harris was upbeat about those staff changes.
“Kind of the theme is ‘change is opportunity for improvement’, so we need to embrace that change and go with it, and I’m really excited about what we have in front of us,” Harris said.
Albany Middle School Principal Rachel Jenkins welcomed “about 50 extra students this year.”
“It’s going wonderful,” Jenkins said. “Everybody got here by 7:30. Our school starts at 7:20, but parents bring their kids on the first couple of days, so that makes that traffic a little crowded, but we motioned them in. I was out there motioning them in, and we got them here by 7:30. That’s good. Ten minutes late (for the first day of school), that’s not late.”
She said the school has “about 650” students this year.
“It was just a larger grade,” Jenkins said of the slight enrollment bump. “We added another teacher – one of the few schools in the parish that got to. Whereas others had to cut back, we were able to get another one. We like it.”
Jenkins said the school is taking on a Disney theme to enhance students’ experience this year.
“Our little motto is: ‘Don’t just fly, soar,” Jenkins said. “So everything we do is going to be kind of Disney related.”
At Albany Upper Elementary, Principal Debbie Tate and her staff welcomed “right at 300” students on Wednesday.
“It’s early, but so far, everything’s going wonderful,” Tate said. “Parents are coming and bringing their students and we see a lot of smiling faces, so we’re glad to have that.”
“We’re getting air conditioning in our gym, and we’re excited about it,” she said. “We share a gym with the middle school, so when they have ball games, we will have air conditioning, and when we have events, we’ll have air conditioning in our gym.
“Also, we don’t usually even go in the gym until September because it’s just too hot in August, so once we get that going, we’ll be able to get in there a little bit earlier.”
Tate said the installation of air conditioning is expected to take around four weeks.
“We get a fresh start every year, and that’s what we like in education – we get to start over every year,” Tate said. “We’re just excited for the school year – ready to have everybody here.”
School zones went into effect this morning, approximately from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., and will be in effect again this afternoon from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Law enforcement officers will be enforcing speed limits and school zones throughout Livingston Parish.
Denham Springs Police Chief Shannon Womack offered the following tips for motorists:
Form now until May, School buses will be on the streets making frequent stops, including stopping at all railroad crossings.
Motorists should add additional time to their daily commute in anticipation of school zones and school buses making frequent stops.
The use of cell phones in a school zone is prohibited, Womack said.
Contributing to this coverage were McHugh David, John Dupont, Kevin Fambrough, Rob DeArmond, David Gray and photographer Morgan Prewitt.