New Clayton High School principal Bennett Jones didn’t wear eye-black with his white dress shirt and tie, but Monday was game day for him. The first-year principal and former football coach said he got to the school at 4:15 a.m., wired with the excitement of Johnston County’s first day of classes.
“I didn’t sleep,” he said.
Clayton High School was the 10th stop Monday for Johnston Superintendent Ross Renfrow, who visited every school in the county on the first day of classes. For Renfrow, Monday began much like it did for many Johnston parents, early and with a student in the car. His first stop was Corinth Holders Elementary, then Corinth Holders High School, before he dropped his son off at Archer Lodge Middle.
In skipping his office for his driver’s seat on one of the red-letter days on every school calendar, Renfrow said he could have more of an impact out in the field.
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“I think that’s what a superintendent should do,” he said. “It would be real easy to sit back and stay in the office today, but I think that’s what senior leadership is for. They can sit back and field any concerns from parents and teachers and principals. But I think our students and parents and teachers and anyone else who can make up stakeholders needs to see that the superintendent generally cares, not about photo opportunities, but anything I can do to help today. ... (This job) is about being with the people, being the leader, being seen and being visible.”
In visiting 40 schools, Renfrow logged 175 miles and needed every second of the school day, starting at 6:40 a.m. at Corinth Holders Elementary and wrapping up just after 4 in the afternoon. At least for the Clayton schools, he traveled solo, keeping close to a tentative schedule but arriving with little fanfare, as if the boss was showing up on day 50 instead of day 1.
At Clayton Middle School, Renfrow answered emails from his car, then rang the school’s doorbell, needing to get buzzed in by the front office. He said the first day is the when the school system grades itself on what it anticipated and on how able it is to react on the fly.
“What’s going to happen today that we didn’t plan for? What was supposed to happen last week that didn’t happen?” Renfrow said. “You just pray that those things are minimized so that it doesn’t prevent schools and teachers from doing their job and doesn’t prevent students from learning.”
Thinking back to his second year as principal of North Johnston High School, Renfrow said he’ll never forget having to suspend a student on the first day. When he called the mom, he didn’t hear much contrition on the other end, with her suggesting Renfrow just wasn’t up to the challenge.
“She said, ‘I dealt with it every day this summer and didn’t call you one time for help, and the first day of school, and it’s not even a full day yet, and you’re calling me because you can’t handle my son,’ ” Renfrow said.
This first day of school was Renfrow’s first as superintendent, after taking over for retired superintendent Ed Croom in the spring. Renfrow found plenty of other firsts along his route. It was Jones’ first day as a principal and his first day back at Clayton, where he was teacher and coach before going into administration.
“It’s definitely different than any other day for me,” Jones said. “I equate it back to the coaching analogy: It’s the first day of the new season, the first ball game. Every day for us is game day. I still had those butterflies when I woke up this morning, that kind of nervous excitement. I get a chance to see the kids and a chance to interact with the parents and the teachers and see the excitement and the great things that are happening in the schools.”
Catherine Trudell is the new principal at Clayton Middle School, jumping to Johnston this year from Wake County, where she was an assistant principal. In the school’s atrium, she planted a fiddle leaf fig tree under a skylight, filling a void, she said, where a tree had stood until two years ago.
For students, Trudell said, the first day can be a mixed bag. “There are some that are overjoyed and then some that are trying to be really cool as they get out of the car,” she said. “I heard a few (whispered) ‘I love you’s’ as they ran off coming from their parents.”
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson
Day 1, by the numbers
Here are some numbers from the first day of school in Johnston County:
▪ 34,029 students, up 1,098 from last year’s first day total of 32,931.
▪ 2,710 teachers, counselors, nurses, social workers, principals and other staff members.
▪ 48 visiting international faculty.
▪ 271 buses on the road, up from 260 last year.
▪ 23,740 miles traveled by those buses.
▪ 8,074 bus stops.
▪ 17,050 meals served at breakfast and lunch.