Rediscovery: O'Neal School Celebrates 40th Anniversary
Sometimes, the idea of turning 40 can be somewhat of a letdown.
But for The O'Neal School, Founders' Day on Wednesday, was nothing short of a celebration as students, faculty, alumni and distinguished guests gathered to reflect on 40 years of great memories, tradition and progress.
During a pep rally in the gym, students recognized some of the school's original founders and supporters through a series of light-hearted games, and afterward, everyone helped themselves to more than 400 birthday cupcakes waiting in the lobby of the Hannah Marie Bradshaw Activities Center.
Among the individuals recognized was Heidi Hall-Jones, the daughter of Mary Elaine Meyer, who donated the land for the school's campus, with the request that the school be named after her late husband, - Jones' stepfather - Wallace O'Neal.
In between catching up with old friends and waiting to take her seat before the student body inside the gym, Jones found herself taking in just how much has progressed at O'Neal over time.
"It's really staggering because you realize when you started, and you consider this wedge of time, and it doesn't seem like 40 years," she said.
Jones, who now lives in Jacksonville, Fla., said that each visit to the school is often an inspiring experience for her.
"You hear so much bad news about what's going on in the world," she said. "When you walk in here, it's good news. It's exciting and encouraging. It's a lot of commitment from a lot of different people. I think my mother and my stepfather would be really excited about that."
Jones added that her mother's gift was a natural continuance of her family's philanthropic tradition. The Meyer family also donated the land for the campus of Sandhills Community College, which is across the road from O'Neal.
"It just seemed to her like a natural sequence to do something for that age group," Jones said. "[My mother] was a large-hearted person, and she had a soft spot for young people."
In her reflection, Jones said she saw a lot of personal maturation in her own life as the school grew and developed. After her mother's death, she felt called to help O'Neal continue its mission to educate the whole, individual child. She currently serves as an honorary member of the school's board of trustees and has remained involved with the school over the years.
Jones said she believes that student homogenization is a problem that public schools face, not because schools don't try to meet students' needs, but because of the rigid framework and various external constraints that school systems must operate within.
"When you're educating a child, it's not just an intellectual set of parentheses," she said. "It's educating each child, not trying to fit that child into some kind of package. That's something you can find and explore in a private school. It's about being able to really prepare a child to be in the world with all of its challenges. The world has changed so much that the way you educate children has to change as well."
The O'Neal School, then called Wallace O'Neal School, was founded in 1971 by a group of parents seeking to create an independent school that would cater to individualized instruction.
It opened in the fall of 1971 at Campbell House in Southern Pines with three teachers and 35 students in grades four through six. By 1980, the school had settled into its current location and had grown into a K-12 school.
Now, the school has more than 400 students and boasts a wide range of academic and extracurricular activities for students, along with expansion in campus facilities. Besides Moore County, O'Neal draws students from Lee, Richmond and Scotland counties.
The day's events were not only about celebrating the school's past, but also about reviving the traditions that helped define the O'Neal spirit early on.
Headmaster Alan Barr said the school plans to use the original farm bell that rang to usher in the first students at the school to mark the beginning and end of each week this year, and students are currently submitting entries in a contest to name the school's buses in an honorable nod to the school's first bus, "Gertrude."
The school has also relocated a statue of a falcon, the school's mascot, to a more prominent position on campus where students and visitors will see it daily.
"We've taken the opportunity to rediscover our history and to rediscover some traditions that have faded out of practice," Barr said. "Every great institution is built on its history, its tradition. Our main goal this year is to recognize those traditions and bring them back."
Barr said this emphasis on tradition instills stronger ties to O'Neal among alumni and its current students.
"It gives everyone a piece of ownership in the school because when you embrace that tradition, you become part of it," he said. "Now The O'Neal School is your school because you are a part of that history."
Over the past few years, the school has tried to foster stronger connections by encouraging more student participation.
Last year, the school implemented its prefect leadership program, in which students from the senior class are selected by teachers to help generate schoolwide collaboration on all facets of student life, ranging from academics and school spirit to community outreach.
"We're seeing the culmination of that here," Barr said.
One of this year's prefects, Addison Horner, hopes he can give back to the school that has given him his academic foundation by getting O'Neal out in the community, where students can make significant contributions through volunteer service.
"Now that I'm about to leave this place I've been at for 10 to 12 years, I do want to leave my mark any way I can," he said. "I want to start something at O'Neal that is going to last a long time."
Contact Hannah Sharpe at email@example.com.
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