As of Tuesday, 8,875 students are enrolled to attend school at one of Auburn City Schools campuses this school year.

That enrollment number is an increase of 148 students compared to last year's enrollment of 8,727 and is on track with projected enrollment numbers. It is also in line with the school system's facilities plan — through which expansion projects are currently ongoing at Cary Woods Elementary and Drake Middle School.

"We are in the process of finishing a few registrations and finalizing the numbers at school, but we are really close to the projected enrollment that was provided to us in the study several years ago, so we are pleased to see that our enrollment is tracking along the numbers that guide our facilities plan 2028," said Cristen Herring, who begins the school year in her new role as ACS superintendent after a 26-year career within the system.

Herring, who comes to work every morning "with my eyes wide open," spends as much time as she can inside the schools, where the magic happens. She said an exciting energy has been in the air as students have come back from the summer holiday.

"It’s our 'happy new year,' " she said. "Students come back with a real eagerness to meet their teachers or to be with their friends. Teachers are rejuvenated, and they’re ready to accept the challenges and to celebrate the success of a new year. Principals have spent the summer preparing the building, getting things ready.

"Back to school is an energizing and exciting time to be a part of the system."

During her time at ACS, Herring has been a teacher, reading specialist, principal, director of elementary curriculum and professional development as well as assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. She has seen how the school system works from many angles, but said that stepping into her new role, she has had to learn anew.

"I think it's very important for me to listen and learn even though I've had experience in the system," she said. "The school board has been very supportive, and I’ve been blessed to have their guidance and support on a couple of tough questions, but it is unique that being an internal candidate, I had a natural knowledge of the way things work and the people who are engaged, but at the same time I’ve needed to be a good student and to learn and listen and to look around me, so that I do the new job well."

She described it as a privilege to serve as superintendent — a role she never imagined stepping into. Though, when the Board of Education was accepting applications last spring, the timing felt right.

"It is not an understatement when I say that ACS means everything to me," she said. "It is my entire career; it is my life's work. This is not a job I would have applied for any place else."

Moving into her tenure as superintendent, Herring named several goals, continually coming back to what she believes is the heart of it all — the students and teachers. She stressed the importance of student safety and student success as well as celebrating teachers.

"We make safety a priority. We want students to be and feel safe, so school safety will always be our top priority," she said. "We want the learning environment in our classrooms to be technology-rich, but we want children to learn critical-thinking and problem-solving skills ... We see students come to school with a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences, and we want to meet each one where they are and take them to the very top of where they can be.

"Knowing each of our students as an individual learner and helping them grow and learn and love learning is important to me."

This year, ACS added 12 teacher, and overall, 71 percent of its teachers have advanced degrees.

"We have a spectacular team of teachers — very well-versed in their pedagogy, they’re committed to students," Herring said. "During our institute meeting I tried to recognize and celebrate the hours they spent over the summer in professional development, professional learning, taking our students on field trips, taking our students to events in the community, but what makes ACS special is the unique disposition of every single person that is a part of it. That includes our parents, our teachers, the community that’s behind us, our students most especially, but ... the quality of applicant that we receive in ACS really allows us to put exceptional people in the classroom with students, and that’s something I don’t take for granted."

As ACS continues to grow, administrators aim to continue to recruit highly-qualified teachers, but Herring said the system is also experiencing a need for more bus drivers, and is expanding its transportation facility to make room for a growing fleet.

"We greatly appreciate that they are the first smile our students see in the morning and the last wave goodbye in the afternoon," she said.

Those interested in hearing Herring speak about the future of ACS can attend the Auburn Chamber's Tuesday Talk at 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 10.

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