As students and faculty return to school, they're excited for the return to 'normal' and looking to build community.

PMG PHOTO: TROY SHINN - Freshman started school today at Century High School, filing into the gymnasium to applause from faculty as the school prepares for an orientation assembly on Tuesday, Sept. 6. Students and faculty alike say that this year feels like the first normal return to school in years.

Century High School's Class of 2026 had its first day of high school Tuesday, Sept. 6, and students and faculty both say this is the first school year that feels normal since 2020.

With COVID-19 restrictions largely lifted ­— masks are no longer required indoors for most students and staff, per Oregon Health Authority guidelines — and no mandatory remote schooling to worry about, everyone seems to be looking forward to this year being a return to traditions and an opportunity to pave a new path.

As is tradition for years now, the first day at Hillsboro high schools is exclusively for freshmen to familiarize themselves with their new school and learn a bit about how the high school experience is different than at their previous schools. PMG PHOTO: TROY SHINN - Students get dropped off for the first day of school in 2022 at Century High School in Hillsboro.

The only upperclassmen around Tuesday were members of clubs or the leadership class, who handed out free donuts to freshman as they walked in off the bus or from the drop-off area. The hallways outside of the main gymnasium were packed with students as they waited for the start of the welcoming assembly.

The cheerleading squad led the hundreds of freshmen sitting in the bleachers in renditions of some of the school's pride cheers.

That return of in-person school spirit is a big factor in some of the excitement.

"(I'm excited) to see that real renewal of the real school spirit," said head basketball coach Scott Kellar. "We started to see it last year with athletics activities in general, but it will be exciting to see people really get more active. We had a huge, lively crowd at the homecoming game Friday night, and that was just awesome to see."

Incoming freshman Lenny Roggenbuck, 14, is already a striker on a local soccer team, but he's looking forward to the start of basketball and baseball season at Century High.

"It's exciting. I'm a little nervous, but I'm looking forward to my years at Century," he said. "I'm very excited for basketball and baseball season to start up, but I'm also enjoying playing soccer, too." PMG PHOTO: TROY SHINN - Displays were set up outside of many schools throughout the Hillsboro School District, welcoming students back to the academic year. This display is outside the breezeway of Century High School.

While a lot of planning goes into any typical school year, strict pandemic protocols being lifted also means that administrators can focus on how to improve classroom experiences, rather than having to focus on how to tie school activities into distance learning or activities where groups have to maintain social distancing.

"I think what was refreshing was that we were able to focus on planning what was best for classrooms, as opposed to what the latest health guidelines are for our day-to-day operations," said principal Julie Kasper. "This is the most 'back to normal' it's been in the last few years."

Unlike in the past two years, the first day at Century in 2022 had a full slate of activities for students. Freshmen were broken out into smaller groups where they go over their class schedules, get tours of the building and answers to any lingering questions.

There was even a scavenger hunt as a fun way for freshmen to discover parts of their new school. PMG PHOTO: TROY SHINN - Century High School principal Julie Kasper welcomes the freshman class during an assembly during the first of day of school in 2022.

"For today, we're really focusing on that small group mentoring," Kasper said. "There's a lot of Q&A as they get tours at various parts of the building. We really just try to make sure we're catering to all those worries that students may still have."

Connecting students back to a communal sensibility in school is a big goal for faculty and student leaders. The student government says it will focus more on interconnectivity this year, hosting more spirit days with fun activities and student rallies.

"We're planning to be a lot more interconnected with the student body this year," said sophomore junior senator David Durán, 16. "Just trying to re-unite us all after this pandemic." PMG PHOTO: TROY SHINN - Freshmen file into the gymnasium of Century High School for an orientation assembly on the first day of school in 2022.

Part of that is the group's focus on doing "100 Small Things."

While the student leadership class looks forward to planning dances and school events, they are also focusing on smaller showcases of school spirit and support to make sure students feel like school is a fun and safe space all year long.

"We're committed to doing '100 Small Things' to make sure students know we're there for them and that school is much more than a place to learn," said senior class vice president Allison Wannberg.

Just what those 100 things will be throughout the academic year is still being brainstormed by student leaders, but Wannberg said they will keep track of all the events and little acts of charity that the students do for each other throughout the year. PMG PHOTO: TROY SHINN - Students at Century High School were greeted with free donuts on their first day of school on Tuesday, Sept. 6.

Of course, student leaders also have the task of planning things like the homecoming dance and prom, which have been pared down or nonexistent for the past three academic years. More than half of Century High's students have never attended an in-person high school dance, Wannberg pointed out.

"This year will be especially good because it's a return to normal," she said. "We'll get more of the fun aspects of being in school, like going to games and planning dances."

Even the faculty expressed giddiness at being back in school and able to form those community-building exercises that have been sorely lacking.

"This is my 16th year teaching at Century, and this is the top three most excited I've ever been to return from summer break," said baseball coach and English teacher Mason Wright. "Even during the first day of in-service days, you just felt that positive energy from staff directly."

He said part of that energy has been an eagerness to work with students to craft that same positive in-person schooling experience that the leadership students are focused on cultivating. PMG PHOTO: TROY SHINN - The Century High School cheer squad led the incoming freshman in a rendition of several cheers to get everyone in the school spirit for the first day of the academic year.

"We're working with students beyond just the content and curriculum … looking for opportunities for staff to create that community," Wright said. "That's what makes this job really fulfilling."

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