The first day back to school Monday was marked by loss, new beginnings and new challenges for thousands of Columbia County's pupils.
As students arrived at Greenbrier High School, two seniors were greatly missed -- Chris Smith and Haley Van Pelt.
Instead of starting her senior year of school as a member of the marching band, Van Pelt, 17, of Evans, was in serious condition at the Medical College of Georgia Monday. Her injuries are the result of a single-car wreck July 22 on Hardy McManus Road. The clarinet player was on her way to band practice.
Greenbrier student Chris Smith, 17, of Evans, drowned July 18 while swimming at Clarks Hill Lake.
Smith was slated to be the football team's starting free safety.
"He was the one. We were probably going to be putting the ball in his hands," Greenbrier Principal Margie Hamilton said of the high-profile student who was always smiling and upbeat.
Some teammates thought it was strange to be starting school without Smith.
"It feels awkward," said junior football player Beau Allen, 17. "I rode the bus this morning and we drive by his house. ... Last year I saw him on the bus often in the morning. He brightens your morning up."
Football practice seems odd without the team's "pep-up guy," Allen added.
"He was a great guy," junior Cody Bieda, 16, said. "It is emotional when you talk about it."
A banner with Smith's name and football number hangs on the fence just outside the locker room where Smith would have gathered with his teammates during the upcoming football season.
Despite the absences of Van Pelt and Smith, others were missed by classmates on the first day.
"We only have like half the people we had last year," junior Ricky Sessum, 16, said. "We lost half our class to Grovetown."
About 400 students were rezoned from Greenbrier to Grovetown High.
On its opening day, Grovetown High welcomed more than 1,100 students to the new campus off Chamblin Road.
"Right now, we're at 1,125 (students), but we're still registering this morning and probably will be again tomorrow," Grovetown High Principal Penny Jackson said.
In addition to being the newest school, at 250,000 square feet, Grovetown High also is Columbia County's largest school.
Paige McCreary, a 17-year-old senior, said it reminded her of a college campus.
"It's big," she said. "I didn't expect it to be so big."
Chelsea Robinson, also a 17-year-old senior, witnessed the progression of the school through its building phase as a construction student at Evans High last year.
"We got to see what they were doing to the school, the football field, the baseball field and the tennis courts," Chelsea said.
"I got to watch it being built and I knew it was going to be big, really big," she said. "It turned out great."
Traffic flowed smoothly at the school during the early hours.
Jackson credited the school's design -- with student and bus parking at the rear, leaving the front clear for parents to drop off and pick up their children -- for easing the traffic flow.
Traffic also seemed light at Harlem High School, but for different reasons.
The school lost nearly half of its student population to Grovetown High during a 2007 rezoning.
Enrollment dropped from nearly 1,300 last year to about 690 this year, said Principal Dietmar Perez.
Some school officials said the population at Harlem High is smaller than it was when the school first opened in its current building about 25 years ago.
"It's a whole lot less (students)" said Jake Reed, a second-year freshman at the school. "It's hard to believe how much smaller it is."
Senior Kaycee Kelligan, 18, said she lost many of her friends to Grovetown High this year.
"I miss my friends, but at least it will be easier getting through the hallways," she said.
Though the school's athletics likely will suffer -- the school has the population of a Class A school but will compete in AAAA -- Perez said academics should improve.
"When you lose students, you lose teachers and programs," he said. "But you get smaller class sizes and you can offer more one-on-one attention for students considered at-risk."
At Evans Elementary School, children filed into the school's front doors and were greeted by new Principal Naesha Parks.
"I'm proud to be serving in the role of the principal," said Parks, who was an assistant principal at Evans Elementary for three years. "It's very exciting to see the kids, as the doors open, with their smiling faces."
As an assistant principal, Parks said her focus was on the children and student achievement.
"As the principal, my focus hasn't changed," she said. "It's on a larger scale."
Parks, who graduated from Evans High in 1992, previously taught special needs pupils at Martinez and North Columbia Elementary schools.
As her first year as the elementary school's principal, Parks said she looks forward to working with the pupils, their parents and the community.
"One of our goals for our school... (is that) our students are able to articulate where they are in the process of their own learning," she said.
Friends Caroline Jackson and Summer Archer were excited to start third grade together in the same classroom.
"You can read more," Summer said. "It's harder work."
In a fourth-grade classroom across the hall, Joshua Allen said he looked forward to seeing friends and teachers from school as well as switching classes as a fourth-grader.
Shelbi Herman said she wants to make new friends this school year.
"My mom says fourth grade is the toughest," she said.
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