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Gainesville Middle students find way around new school
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Gainesville Middle School principal Ken Martin directs traffic in front of the school as students are dropped off for the first day of school. - photo by Tom Reed
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Even as an eighth-grader and someone used to middle school routines, Cindy Pruett admitted to some nervousness Tuesday morning.

And not just because it was the first day of the Gainesville school system’s school year.

Standing out in one of the wide hallways of the new Gainesville Middle School, she described her school as "a lot bigger, a lot newer and a lot fancier."

The $33 million school opened Tuesday as 1,300 students officially ended their summer by pouring through the doors and fanning out to classes throughout the two-story building.

"I thought (the day) went exceptionally smooth, considering all the possible issues that could have arisen," said language arts teacher John Ford.

Perhaps most of Tuesday’s headaches belonged to parents and commuters traveling on Jesse Jewell Parkway.

The school and Frances Meadows Aquatic and Community Center share an entrance off the busy four-lane road, where traffic was thick and slow moving.

Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said the school particularly experienced afternoon traffic issues.

"We’re meeting in the morning to address the problems," she said late Tuesday. "Some were first-day problems, the others were control-of-flow issues that we need to address."

Morning traffic was no cake walk, either, but parents were greeted by high-spirited faculty members as they brought their children to the front of the school.

Principal Ken Martin stood sweating in the already baking sun helping to steer cars through the front driveway.

But he was smiling.

"Good morning! Welcome back," he said to several students as they entered the school.

Jimmy Whelchel, graduation coach, also helped with first-day rituals, including the school’s very first morning announcements and leading the school in a moment of silence and pledge of allegiance.

"The sixth-graders are a little scared," he said, after students were, for the most part, seated in classrooms. "But they’re going to be make it."

Haynes Kaufman, a sixth-grade language arts teacher, helped lead a group of sixth-graders on a tour of the building.

"This is a learning process for all of us, because this is a big, big school," she said.

After some initial confusion, students and teachers found each other and held classes. Teachers mostly spent the first day introducing themselves and their classes, and handing out forms and schedules.

Other than wider halls, students also got to experience another big change from the old school on Woods Mill Road — a spacious cafeteria.

Four lunch lines separated by the kitchen replaced two lines in the kitchen.

"Things are going well for the first day," said Donna Perron, the school’s nutrition manager. "You always have some things that go wrong — orders that didn’t come in right — but we’ve got other things we can substitute and make sure (students) have a nutritious meal."

"We’re getting through it all," she added with a laugh, as tray-holding students flew past.

Standing duty in the cafeteria was Marbel Casas, a special education paraprofessional. Her daughter, Kimberly, is in seventh grade at the school.

She said she was impressed so far by the school.

"It’s beautiful, comfortable, secure — real, real nice," Casas said.

The day ended with a long line of parents picking up children. First in line was Teri Robertson, picking up her daughter, Meagan, a sixth-grader.

"She’s excited about being here," said Robertson, accompanied by Meagan’s grandmother, Leah. "She gets to go swimming (at Frances Meadows) during her next-to-last period."

The two women said they were impressed by the school.

"It’s massive," Leah Robertson said.

"It’s beautiful, too," Teri Robertson said. "We were shocked at how big it was."

Students seemed pleased, too.

"The look of excitement on the faces of the students at GMS was priceless," Dyer said.

Dyer, although concerned about traffic, was pleased with how the day went for the system overall. The first day enrollment was 6,103 students, up 461 students from last year’s first-day tally.

"We really appreciate the help of agencies and churches who have donated school supplies to our students. The help of our community has made this a more joyful first day of school," she said.

At day’s end, the middle school students poured out to the sidewalk leading to buses, where they waited, some as long as 30 minutes, for the ride home.

Whelchel carried a microphone, attached to an amplifier, to help direct students to the right buses.

After most of the students had left, he still walked around carrying the microphone and amplifier, looking a little worn by the experience. But he was smiling and upbeat.

"It’s been a good day," he said.

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