Rippon Middle School students were welcomed back to school Monday morning with fist bumps, high-fives and big smiles from a group of community volunteers.
Kimberly Fleming, president and CEO of the David J. Cobb Foundation, joined forces with the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity's Prince William County chapter to greet students as they returned for classes on their first day of school.
Volunteer Rich Berry held a sign that read: "YOU'RE THE BEST!" as he coaxed smiles from the teens and preteens as they streamed into the building.
Berry said he hoped to inspire the students and let them the community supports them.
"We just want them to feel protected as they're going in," Berry said. "We all said a prayer for them that they would have a great day and a great year."
The David J. Cobb Foundation works to support local students and raise awareness about mental health needs.
Fleming said the group picked Rippon Middle because some in their group already work with students there and thought they could use some extra encouragement on their first day.
Principal Scott Bergquist said he was excited to welcome the 1,380 students back to classes in a building that received a bit of a refresh over the past two summers. Rippon Middle, which opened in 1966, is one of the county's oldest middle schools.
The school division installed all new doors and windows, replaced the trim under the roof, retiled the front entrance and added a fresh new Raiders logo near the front door, Bergquist said.
The school is in the process of updating its front landscaping to add plantings and benches for students and parents, he said.
The middle school has 90 teachers and 128 staff members. Nineteen teachers are new this year, Bergquist said.
The staff's goal for the first day is to welcome students, make them feel comfortable and ensure they get to the right classrooms, he said.
Incoming sixth-graders Daniel Hoffman, 11, and Jayden Parker, 10, stopped to ask Bergquist where they should report for homeroom.
After the principal directed them toward class lists posted on the front doors, the boys said they were both excited and a little bit nervous about their first day of middle school.
"I'm excited about the lockers and meeting new people and stuff," Parker said. "But I'm nervous about that stuff, too."
School Resource Officer Luis Zamora stood along the sidewalk a few feet away to say hello to students as they got off their school buses. Zamora said he is excited to return to Rippon after spending a year at nearby Fred Lynn Middle School.
His goal on the first day, he said, is "to put students at ease."
"We just want to let them know they're safe and to be a welcoming face," Zamora said.