The doors of the brand new South Lakes Elementary School in Fuquay-Varina should have been opening to students in a matter of days; would have been opening — in any other year but this one.
Instead, students enrolled at South Lakes will begin the year with instruction online-only, as will thousands of other students across Wake County.
Kim Short, inaugural principal of South Lakes, is determined not to let a hiccup like a global pandemic slow her down.
“It’s not the picture that I planned, but sometimes that’s ok,” Short says.
“In the beginning from the interview for this position, I wanted to build a community, a home. The message to staff and parents has been, ‘Welcome home. We’re glad you are here.’”
Her tenet that “everyone belongs here” is especially important, since the students and staff coming to South Lakes will be blended from other Wake County schools, Fuquay-Varina Elementary and Willow Spring Elementary in particular. Two of the colors decorating the hallways — orange and blue — are a subtle nod to those two elementary schools.
“I wanted a piece of them to come here,” Short says.
Because of social distancing precautions, South Lakes’ 60 staff members haven’t been in a room together yet. Even the majority of interviews were conducted virtually. But Short has seen her staff come together in inspiring ways — forming leadership teams, holding small group meetings and completing training to prepare for the new school year.
In selecting the school’s mascot, principal Kim Short wanted an animal that wasn’t in use at any other Wake County school. A lover of alliteration, she settled on the sea turtle.
“Can we have a sea turtle at the lake? Sure we can. Anything is possible here.”
“They have risen above and already done foundational work in building this school community,” she says.
An important piece of the vision for South Lakes Elementary is restorative practices — a social science practice focused on relationship building, inclusiveness and shared values.
“Restorative practices build relationships between staff, kids and families. You get to know each other more deeply. Everybody is valued and you can learn from other perspectives,” says Short.
Staff and school PTA members have worked through the summer learning restorative practices techniques. With the added challenge of distance learning, relationships will be more vital than ever. But you won’t hear Principal Short utter the word “challenge.” She strives to see the uniqueness of 2020 as an opportunity.
“I’m a half-full girl. To be able to open a school in an area with friends is exciting,” says Short, who worked previously as principal of Ballentine Elementary School in Fuquay for 15 years. “The lift is much more manageable when you can call on colleagues and friends.”
The enrollment at South Lakes is already 525 students out of a capacity of 712. Four beautiful playgrounds, a colorful cafeteria, collaborative indoor and outdoor learning spaces, and a bright media center await the arrival of students — whenever that may be.
To prepare for the school year, Short recommends students practice wearing a mask and practice the sea turtle wave — a no-contact greeting inspired by the school’s mascot.
Her advice to parents?
“Love your teacher. They are working super hard and are incredible at what they do. Appreciate them, give them grace and be a partner.”
That can mean telling the teacher when school work is too tough, or too easy; letting them know when students are struggling emotionally and reinforcing the expectations of the classroom.
“We have to make sure that people feel connected. If families aren’t engaging, we’ll be very intentional to pull them in,” Short says. “We want everyone to see they have a place to belong and a sense of permanence.”