Autumn Coffie, 11, left Woodbridge's Penn Elementary three months ago at the top of the heap. She was a fifth-grader. She and her classmates had the run of the school. They knew the teachers. The routine? Old hat.
But on Thursday, Autumn was at Beville Middle School with dozens of other new middle-schoolers, standing in a slow-moving line to buy gym clothes. Gym clothes! They don't have that at Penn. And changing classes, and lockers, and big, BIG kids--they're not at Penn, either.
"I'm nervous. It's just different," Autumn allowed. In fifth grade, she was way up there, she said. "Now I'm back to low again."
Such start-of-school jitters are common to everyone, from teachers to administrators to students. But for students making the biggest transitions--those entering school for the first time as kindergartners, or moving into middle or high school--classes may bring extra anxiety. Prince William estimates more than 12,000 students will enter kindergarten, sixth or ninth grade Sept. 7.
Autumn's mother, Beverly Coffie, said she is comfortable with the provisions Beville has made for its youngest students. Sixth-graders are housed in a separate wing from seventh- and eighth-graders. The students are divided into teams so they can get used to seeing the same teachers and same classmates.
Still, "they're embarking upon adulthood," said Coffie, who lives in Dale City. "Every parent is a little apprehensive, because they're starting on a whole new part of their life."
In cases like this, parents need to be careful to listen extra hard to their children and note any anxiousness about school, said Susanne Denham, a professor of psychology at George Mason University.
For young students, such as those entering kindergarten, parents may need to help their children frame their concerns, Denham said.
"For kindergartners, it's hard for them to talk about feelings even if they want to because they aren't advanced," Denham said.
And middle school and high school students may think it's too uncool to talk about being afraid of changing classes in five minutes, or the perennial fear, getting shoved inside a locker.
The sixth-graders buying gym clothes at Beville tried to keep their cool. For the most part, parents spoke eloquently of their pride in their children, mixed with concern about this new step in their lives. The children mostly limited themselves to one- or two-word answers.
"She's my youngest, so that makes it a little bit strange," said Kathy Reed, of Dale City, talking about her 11-year-old daughter, Whitney. "It was always in the back of my mind that she was going to go here, but now that she's really here I'm thinking, 'They're growing up so fast.' "
Asked how she felt about coming to Beville from Kerrydale Elementary, Whitney shrugged. "I don't know," she said. "It's sort of exciting."
It's all right if your child doesn't always want to speak, Denham said. "Do not burden them with questions. The best thing is to just be available."
Recognizing that transitions can be difficult, Prince William schools have developed individual programs at schools for students.
For example, at Kerrydale Elementary in Woodbridge, parents with kindergarten students can visit the school Thursday morning. The children will see their classrooms, meet their teachers and ride a school bus on a short trip around the neighborhood. Principal Wayne Ralston said the open house can ease anxieties on the part of students and parents alike.
"The parents are knowing what their children are getting into," Ralston said. "And the children can get used to the classroom when they know that Mommy and Daddy are there."
At Stonewall Jackson High School in Manassas, Principal Steven Constantino is piloting an entirely new program for ninth-graders, and others new to the school, called "One of Us." Fifty-five student mentors will be trained Wednesday and will give tours and other information about the school Thursday.
"The best way to help kids know what they are getting into is to have other kids tell them," Constantino said.
For the most part, student anxieties and fears will dissolve in the first few days of school, no matter how dire they seem at the time. Krissy Bussard, 13, will be an eighth-grader at Beville, while her younger sister Rebecca, 10, is entering sixth-grade there.
Krissy remembers what it was like to be in Rebecca's place.
"I was scared about getting lost in the school," she said. But then, how long did it take for that fear to go away? "About a week."
CAPTION: Above, Ron Williams Jr., a new sixth-grader at Beville Middle School, confers with his father, Ron Sr., while his mom, Crystal, pays for his gym clothes. Bryan McAllister, left, holds up a school shirt to see whether it fits.
CAPTION: It's hard to tell who is more nervous about the transition to middle school--mother Margaret Buzzard or daughter Rebecca.