Mann Middle School eighth-grader Hollie Nowlan remembers specifically how she felt the first time she walked onto the campus as a sixth-grader in August 2020 as schools across Texas and the country re-opened after being closed for five months because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was tough for me to adapt to this campus because it was a very long summer,” she said. “So suddenly, showing up on this campus as a sixth-grade student was different and very stressful. It took me much longer to get used to it than it should have.”

Now an eighth-grade student at Mann, Nowlan recently had the opportunity to share her success story of going from a worried rookie to a confident middle-school veteran. She and several of her fellow Mann eighth-grade students served as student guides Feb. 7 to dozens of fifth-grade students from the eight elementary schools and McMurry Center for Innovation that will populate the sixth-grade class at Mann in 2023-24.

Students from Austin, Ortiz, Bassetti, Bonham, Dyess, Ward, Taylor, and Thomas elementary schools and 18 students from McMurry were part of Fifth-Grade Day at Mann, led by principal Chad Drake.

Drake, who spent time at Mann as an assistant principal, returned to the campus last May after spending the previous three years as the principal at Dyess Elementary School. He was engaged all morning with the visiting students who will be under his supervision next year.

“I had to get re-acclimated to the pace of middle school life, and it will be the same with those kids when they get here next year,” Drake said. “There’s a lot of freedom they’ll have here that they haven’t had for six years in elementary school. But now they’ll have to get to their next class four minutes after the bell rings. But that’s been a coaching point for this sixth-grade class all year long, and it will be no different next year.”

Drake said the questions he heard from students visiting the campus weren’t surprising and mainly concerned safety and security.

“You kind of forget that kids are worried about bullies, they’re worried about getting lost, and they’re worried about the size of the building,” he said. “I was asked several times about each of those things, and it’s just a reminder that it’s such a difference between the culture here and the culture they’ve been in for the last six years.”

However, Drake and the student leaders were quick to point out to the students that the sixth-grade students will have very little interaction with the seventh- or eighth-grade students. The sixth-grade halls are separated from the other academic halls and they have their own restrooms and lunch times.

The students also listened to boys’ and girls’ athletics coaches and counselors and heard from the Mann band, choir, and orchestra programs. Drake said Mann takes great pride in promoting all of their extracurricular programs.

“What we featured were the most exciting things for kids,” he said. “We have so many outstanding fine arts programs, and I hope they were excited about what they heard. We’re proud to offer these opportunities to kids because it gets them invested.”

All of that made the prospect of going to middle school a bit easier to handle, at least for Stafford Elementary School fifth-grade student Jordan Blount, who will be at Mann next year.

“It was a lot of fun because I got to see a lot of people I already know,” she said. “I wasn’t too nervous about coming here because I have cousins who attend school here. But it was a little bit nerve-wracking, though, just seeing the size of the campus and all the kids from the other schools who will be here.”

But one of the things that Nowlan said she and the other Mann student leaders tried to do was calm fears and settle nerves.

“I wanted to show them that this will be an opportunity for them to grow and try new things instead of making it seem like you have to be perfect at everything,” Nowlan said. “I wanted them to know they’re in a safe place. They’re here to learn and not be stressed out. They’re here to grow and not be scared.”