A bright start to the year: students experience rare solar eclipse on first day of school

On the first day of school, more than 2,600 students streamed into the stadium for a once-in-a-blue-moon experience. Hyline, band and cheer delivered performances to an expectant crowd. Then, at 1:10 p.m., students donned their eclipse glasses and looked up. Partially blocked by the moon, the sun was a deep-orange crescent.

Reactions to the rally were varied. But even though some students found the event “overhyped,” many appreciated the change in routine.

“It was just a really great way to start the year,” senior Morgan DuVall said. “It was a really fun distraction on the first day.”

Some local schools, such as Lake Travis High School, didn’t allow their students to go outside during the window of time.

“I thought it was cool that we were the only school around that did this,” senior Hattie Pace said.

Part of the program included a pre-recorded video of David Yeomans, a Westlake alumnus and current meteorologist for KXAN.

“I thought it was really cool how they got the local newscaster on,” senior Kate Callihan said.  “That was my favorite part, because it’s always cool to see someone who went to Westlake, who still invests in the students here and gives back to the place that he went.”

Members from the performing groups also enjoyed the experience.

“It was awesome to be able to perform a dance for an event that only occurs every once in awhile,” Hyline member senior Alexandria Curtis said. “Right when we finished our dance, there was just enough time to put on our glasses to look at the eclipse.”

The cheerleaders had practiced for two days leading up to the event, creating a space-themed routine.

“At first it was confusing, like, how are we supposed to cheer for the sun, or the moon?” cheerleader junior Audrey Beesley said. “But it was fun; it was cool to get out on the first day of school and just do something different.”

After the rally, most students returned to class and quickly fell back into the rhythm of syllabi reading and class introductions. But in Melissa Dupre’s AP Capstone Research class, students spent the next hour discussing their observations during the event.

“I think people in general, but especially at a privileged place like Westlake, dismiss how much they’re given access to,” senior Abby Downing said. “It seemed like most students were underwhelmed by the eclipse. I thought that might be a common reaction. But then I saw a family sitting at the far end of the bleachers with two small kids. The kids were mesmerized by the sun — they were so excited.”

Whether students discussed the eclipse in-depth or enjoyed it in passing, the event was definitely a unique experience that took sweat to implement.

“The whole conversation started around April,” assistant principal Casey Ryan said. “The glasses were here before the last school year ended.”

Astronomy teacher Bob Murphy first introduced the idea of a Westlake eclipse event. From there, the planning process fell to Valerie Taylor and Dillon Finan, instructional partners for humanities and STEM respectively. They brainstormed, sorted out scheduling quirks, contacted  performance groups and involved Student Council. As principal Steve Ramsey and other administrators entered the conversation, the event gained the approval of the department chairs, the Campus Leadership Team and ultimately, the community.

“Every [letter] that I sent out, everything was just positive,” Ramsey said. “[People were saying] we were taking a chance and doing something unique, thanks for thinking of our kids, this is going to be an experience for them. Everybody was very, very positive about it.”

Plans continued developing over the summer, until finally Aug. 21 arrived. For those running the event, things were hectic. First, a glasses shortage threatened to jeopardize some students’ experiences.

“We ordered 3,000. We have 2,700 students,” Taylor said. “But [Mr. Finan] had forgotten to add teachers into the count. Then Adult Transition Services asked for glasses, and central office asked for some. On Monday, we were 60 short. I ended up by the gate, and I had people coming in without glasses. I was up in the stands, going like, ‘Who doesn’t have glasses?’”

In the end, through trade-offs and gathering extras, everyone who wanted glasses was able to obtain them, according to Taylor. Administrators saw the good side of the problem: it indicated that the turnout for the event was nearly 100 percent. And overall, they felt things went incredibly well.

“Everybody seemed to have a good time, and it was just very smooth,” Ryan said. “The whole thing: everybody getting out to the stadium, the actual band, cheer, giving everybody three to five minutes to look up, then everyone very orderly going back in.”

In fact, transitions and proceedings were so smooth that students arrived back at sixth period 10 minutes early.

“It confirms for me that our student population is a lot different than most places,” Ramsey said. “We found only one pair of glasses on the whole way back to the building. And I saw them fall out of a kid’s pocket — it wasn’t like he threw them down. That’s just one example for us: that you guys can respond, you guys can look at new things, you can go through new events and be perfectly fine. And you do it with a grace that most high school kids don’t have.”

Looking forward, students may be sick of eclipse jokes by now, but it’s not over. According to Taylor, students can expect the eclipse motif to return throughout the year, through activities sponsored by Student Council, Teen Teaching themes, and so on.

“[The theme would be] ‘Westlake Eclipses,’ meaning we surpass everything we did the years before,” she said. “We thought we could bring it back at various points: have you eclipsed your previous performance?”

With such a star-struck start, the 2017-2018 school year is shining with possibility.