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It was tears and cheers for more than 1,500 students who returned to school in Willows on Tuesday.
Elementary and middle school students scurried to classrooms with smiles on their faces, while Willows High School students buckled down like old pros.
For upper grades, high school means tougher classes, maintaining friendships, football games, homecoming dances, club activities and preparing for college.
"It's kind of scary," said freshman Jina Smith, 13, a newcomer to the campus. "People are walking around like they're really cool."
Parents also met the first day of school with mixed feelings, especially those sending children off to kindergarten for the first time.
"It's very emotional," said Heather Parish, whose daughter, Natalie, 5, started school at Murdock Elementary on Tuesday. "She's my baby."
Willows Unified School District's motto, "Preparing today's students for tomorrow's challenges," is fitting for students who have spent almost their entire lives in school.
"It went by so fast," said Willows High School senior Cecilia Nungaray, 18, who now has graduation and college on her mind. "I can't believe how fast it all went by."
While nearly all students say each grade level has important milestones, senior William Storz, 17, said the last year of school makes the whole world seem more real.
The realization, he said, is that kids have to grow up to be adults and become active members of society.
"It's not about school anymore," he said. "It's about life."
Parent Jackie Johnson has three children in school, and sent her youngest child, Hannah Rollins, 5, to kindergarten.
Like her sisters, Breanna Johnson, 10, and Emma Rollins, 7, Hanna was up at 6:30 a.m. and ready to go.
"She's been waiting for this day a long time," Johnson said.
Willows Unified implemented only a few changes this year, including keeping the fifth graders at Murdock Elementary School instead of sending them Willows Intermediate School, where they were schooled in the past.
The fifth graders are now housed on a grassy knoll on the west side of the campus, referred to as the Uplands, and home to the Mighty Mallards.
Fifth graders in Lauren Albert's class nodded agreement when Albert said fifth grade is "more cool" than the rest of the school.
"We're not just Mallards," Albert said. "We're Mighty Mallards."
Even though the change left sixth graders at Willows Intermediate School once again the under classmen of the campus, Johnson said few, especially her daughter, appeared to mind.
"She's been there before," Johnson said.
At Willows High School, even sophomores seemed to find something to cheer about on the first day of school.
"We get to stand up at rallies," said Baneli Lomeli, 15. "That's cool. Freshmen have to sit down."
"We also don't have the constant fear of being 'trashed canned,'" said Brent Soeth, 15.
Alex Rogue, 17, is doing a second stint as a senior, hoping to catch up on English credits before he begins Butte College mid-year.
The best thing about the "do-over," he said, is hanging out with friends who are juniors, and coming back to walk with that class at graduation.
Although most Willows Unified students, teachers and parents said first day of school jitters are normal, it didn't show on Willows High School's new vice-principal Ron Bazan.
"It's going great," said Bazan, who patrolled the hallways at lunchtime. "It's going to be the best year ever, and we're going to get our scores up too. That is key."
Bazan did admit his personal goal was to familiarize himself with all the policies and procedures of the high school.
"After 10 years at the other schools, I knew it like the back of my hand," he said.
While students looked forward to a year of activities and sports, most have set their sights on academic achievement to get them into the best colleges and successful careers.
If they use their natural talents along the way, so much the better.
Storz plans to turn his love and talent for music into a career as composer and educator.
Freshman Kishi Hunter, 14, plans to combine her ability to speak English and sign American Sign Language into a career as a medical or court interpreter.
"My parents are deaf," said Hunter, who grew up learning to sign. "I think helping other people would be fun."
Others students like Diana Mercado, 13, said she has time in the next four years to decide between being a pediatrician or maternity nurse.
Junior Alex Rouge, 17, wants to work a few years before going to the police academy.
For now, being at school means taking things one day and doing the best you can, said Taylor Gray, 14.
"There's freedom here," she said. "It just feels free."
CONTACT Susan Meeker at 934-6800 or firstname.lastname@example.org.