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Chester County Press

First day of school was a first for principals, too

08/31/2015 02:13PM ● By J. Chambless

Pocopson Elementary principal Clif Beaver greets an arriving student.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

With crisp new backpacks, shiny new shoes, and sometimes tightly gripping mom or dad's hand, students across Chester County started classes on Monday morning. At Pocopson Elementary School, parents clutching phones and cameras documented their child's first walk up to the school doors, waving goodbye and turning a page in their lives.

 At the door, Clif Beaver was having a bit of a moment, as well.

“I am a bit nervous,” he said with a smile. “I didn't sleep a lot last night. I think we all have the pre-school jitters. But what an exciting day.”

Aug. 31 was Beaver's first day as the principal of Pocopson Elementary School, after serving as the principal at Unionville Elementary School for the past several years. It's a bigger building and more students, he said, “but I'm learning my way around.”

Beaver and the staff had been well prepped by the time the school opened its doors, and families got a chance to tour the building the previous week to see where everything is located.

“Mr. McLaughlin left some great traditions here,” Beaver said of the school's previous principal, who retired at the end of last year. “I am eager to continue that, and maintain that level of success.”

With 625 students entering the building on Monday, Beaver thought about his own first day of school. “I do remember my first day of first grade,” he said, smiling. “It was at King's Highway Elementary School in Coatesville. I was going in to meet Miss Childs, my first-grade teacher. What a good name for a teacher, right?”

Beaver, who stood at a side door and greeted students as they arrived, said he's far from being the scary principal we might remember from our own school days. “I'm just the opposite,” he said, “Every now and then, you've got to put on the game face, though.”

The first day of school is a critical time. “I do appreciate the students' excitement, and their nerves,” he said. “But as soon as they see their teachers, they're going to be fine. We talked with the teachers last week about how the start of school defines our April and our May. We set the tone now, and it's positive and energetic, with clear expectations, and that sets the tone for a great school year.”

The parents, on the other hand, might need a few minutes to collect themselves, so the school was holding a PTO-sponsored “Boo Hoo Coffee” for moms and dads of kindergarteners in an upstairs room.

 Over at Unionville High School in Kennett Square, principal Jim Conley had finished greeting incoming students by 9 a.m. on Monday, and had a minute to talk about his first day as principal at the school.

“Oh I'm always nervous the night before school starts,” he said, smiling. “I think, as a teacher, you're always nervous because it's the first time you're with the kids, the kids are nervous – we're all nervous. But you know that there's great work about to happen. It's nervous energy, but in a positive way.”

While serving as assistant principal under Paula Massanari, who retired at the end of last year, Conley said he was nervous about stepping into the leadership role. But in an email he sent to the parents and 1,339 students at Unionville on the first day of school, Conley said, “You're going into a whole new world. Don't be nervous. It'll be great. You'll have people here who care about you and are going to look out for you.”

Conley said his first day of high school, at St. Joe's Prep, meant wearing a coat and tie to school and learning the way around the huge building, so he can relate to incoming freshmen at Unionville.

“That was in 1988-89, and I was in a school that had boys from all over the area that I didn't know,” he said. “But there are people who welcome you the first day, and I remember the upperclassmen and adults who welcomed us in.”

There's ample opportunity for students making the transition from middle school to high school to see where their classes are located and learn their way around before school starts, Conley said. “We've had the new student orientation night, we've had the tour of the building, we had had the Students Helping Other Children here – they're our leadership group that meets with the kids. They gave a tour and I spoke to the parents. For some of the parents, it's their first experience in a high school since they were in high school themselves.”

As the father of three boys – ages 11, 7 and 3 1/2 – Conley wasn't able to see the two older ones off in person for their first day of school on Monday, but his wife had sent photos and texts, and all went well.

“This morning I met with the ninth to twelfth grades and went over the nuts and bolts,” he said. “We talked about some changes in the building, but there were also also some friendly reminders. The message for us is to say to them, 'We trust you to do the right thing.' Instead of talking about negatives, we talk about positive things. It's going to be a great year, and we're excited. We have great kids here. They're going to make mistakes, but if they do, that's OK. That's how they grow, and we support them.”

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email [email protected].