GREENSBORO — With her camera shutter repeatedly clicking, school data manager Rene Cranfill sought to document the students of Gateway Education Center as they got off their buses for their first day of the school year on Monday. She paused, however, to plant a kiss on a Nyamedza Quaicoe, a kindergartner whose family she's gotten to know through her work at the school.
"Very special family; they've been through a lot but we've been right there with them," she said. "He's an angel."
Monday marked the first day back to school for most Guilford County students, including Gateway, which serves students ages 3 to 22 who have severe disabilities.
For a short time this spring, it looked like Gateway students might not return to the building this fall.
In April, Superintendent Sharon Contreras said she planned to recommend moving all the Gateway students to other schools for students with special needs, due to concern for their safety. The district had documented repeated issues with water getting inside the building when it rains. School administrators feared wet conditions could lead to poor air quality and harm medically fragile students.
Gateway parents and their allies responded by organizing opposition to the closure. They questioned the need to move the students and gave passionate testimonials about the value of the school community to their students and families. Following the outcry, Contreras backed off her proposal to close the school, instead offering an option for Gateway students to transfer if their parents chose.
School board members later voted to spend nearly $2 million on a new roof and repairs to windows and gutters at Gateway, money they had planned to use on renovations for career and technology programs at other schools.
Sara Nachtrab, the school's principal, said she expects the roof to be replaced in the next couple of months, along with new gutter work.
As students returned to school Monday, work on windows at the school was underway. Nachtrab pointed to new windows in hallways, where she said the worst of the leaking had occurred.
"Everything is moving forward," she said.
School counselor Shantra Gray said as far as she knows, none of the families opted to transfer from Gateway to Haynes-Inman or another school in the district this year.
Gray talked about the dedication of the school's custodians to keeping safe conditions for students and the long tenure of many staff members.
"There's not a lot of turnover here, which should speak volumes," she said.
There are about 130 students at Gateway this year, Nachtrab said. That number includes students in the Greensboro Cerebral Palsy Association's program for children up to 3 years old, which also is housed at the school.
Most of the students in Gateway's programs arrive by bus. Many got off the bus in their wheelchairs, but teacher assistant Jerome Roberson carried at least one pre-K student — Kaylee Rodriguez — off the bus cradled in his arms.
Kaylee locked eyes and gave a giant grin to Leslie Bailey, her former speech therapist, as Roberson transferred her to Bailey. Later, staff loaded her into a tall wheelchair and she was sent along to her class, with her backpack and a special poster board. Her adult sister had filled the poster board with family photos and details about Kaylee, such as her love of lasagna and the song, "Baby Shark."
Students at Gateway are typically in classes of six or seven students, under the supervision of three classroom staff. Most days, just one of those three will fetch their students from the buses, but for the first day, other school staff such as therapists and administrators pitch in.
"I always say I get my smile back when the kids come," Nachtrab said, adding that summer is fine for getting work done — but it's not the same. "The spirit and the life is back in the building."