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story.lead_photo.caption Fayetteville Superintendent Matthew Wendt (right) speaks Friday with Assistant Superintendent John L. Colbert during the conference for School District employees in Fayetteville High School’s gymnasium. - Photo by Spencer Tirey

FAYETTEVILLE -- Superintendent Matthew Wendt's back-to-school rally Friday provided a moment of recognition for all 1,400 employees who work with students in the School District.

Wendt told a story about the bus driver he remembered as a boy growing up on a Kansas farm. He was the bus driver who drove him and his dad, who was a coach and teacher, to track meets.

Fayetteville School District

• fayar.net

• 9,600 students

• 1,400 employees

• 16 schools

• First day for traditional calendar schools is Wednesday

— STAFF REPORT

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"I loved my bus driver," Wendt said. "My bus driver was the first person associated with the school district that I saw every day. He was great. He made me feel like it was great to want to go to school."

Wendt had plenty to talk about with his staff, from his ideas for advancing the School District, academics to online learning and shooting for 100 percent of students graduating high school. On Friday, though, the people of the school district were his priority.

"It's more important today we focus on people like you," Wendt told the packed crowd inside of the Bulldog Arena at Fayetteville High School. "You can make a difference in the life of a child."

Asbell and Happy Hollow elementary schools and Owl Creek School follow an alternate calendar and have already started the school year, but the first day for the other 13 schools is Wednesday.This will be the first year for the district's new online charter school, Fayetteville Virtual Academy.

Wendt is also new to the district. He started July 1, succeeding former Superintendent Paul Hewitt, who retired in June. The "We are one Fayetteville Conference & Convocation" was Wendt's first big meeting with his staff, a moment he wanted all of them to experience.

The convocation Friday provided a chance for Pam McCool, a custodian for Holt Middle School, to reunite with teachers she used to work with, she said.

"It's the first time we've ever been invited," McCool said. "It's wonderful."

In past years, the back-to-school meeting only involved the certified educators in the district, but all schools and district offices closed Friday morning to allow all employees, including the district's classified staff, such as bus drivers, custodians, school secretaries and classroom aides, to participate.

"We couldn't do our jobs without those people," said Carri Finley, a fifth-grade literacy teacher at Owl Creek. "For them to get the recognition they deserve was a great way to set the tone for the school year."

Wendt also took time to recognize the years of service of all the employees, from the newest to the district to those who have spent a lifetime with the district. The superintendent gave away flowers and gift cards for those with more than 40 years of service. He ended with Thelma Thomason, who plans to retire this school year after 54 years in education.

Thomason's morning began with a bus ride with her Vandergriff colleagues over to the high school, she said. They all wore matching school shirts and walked in the gym to hear the high school's Bulldog Band playing.

Vandergriff's seats happened to be on the gym floor. Thomason thought something was up when she was told she should sit on an end chair. It was special moment for her standing on stage and seeing everyone in the gym standing up clapping as she accepted a vase of flowers from Wendt.

"You just work," she said. "They took the time out to do that."

Thomason, who preferred not to say she is 77, started teaching 1962 in Fayetteville at the former Lincoln Elementary School, which was an all-black school. She's opened two schools: Butterfield Trail Elementary School, where she taught for 25 years, and Vandergriff, where she has spent the last 20 years. She taught first grade, but switched when the district added kindergarten. On Friday, her thoughts were on making sure her room is ready for one last class of kindergartners.

"I enjoy kids," she said. "I enjoy watching them learn and listening to them. Plus, it's a lot of fun."

Fayetteville School District is a special place, said Steve Clark, president of Fayetteville's Chamber of Commerce, during a speech to the staff.

Many were wiping their eyes after Clark talked about what the students and staff did for his grandson A.J. Davis, who graduated from Fayetteville High School in 2012 and is now 21. Davis was diagnosed at age 10 with Friedreich's ataxia, a genetic disorder that initially caused problems with stumbling and later affected his ability to walk straight. There's no cure, Clark said.

The staff and students rallied around Davis at both Root Elementary School and Woodland Junior High School. By the time he was at Fayetteville High School, Davis had a group of friends who looked out for him in a way that he saw his physical limitations as "opportunities," Clark said. The last time Davis walked a measurable distance was at his graduation.

The family wasn't sure whether Davis could walk the length of the stage to get his diploma, but football players stood across the stage and promised to catch him if he fell, Clark said. Davis now uses a wheelchair, and the disease has progressed, making tasks such as shaving or picking up a pencil difficult.

Davis's experience through school contributed to an outlook that was evident in comments he made in a video Clark saw Friday before making his speech. In the video, his grandson, with a big smile on his face, says, "Life's tough, folks. Don't quit." And he wears a bracelet that says, "I can do anything."

"He learned that here," Clark said. "He learned that from you."

NW News on 08/13/2016

Print Headline: Superintendent rallies teachers, staff for another school year

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