Sandy Durham retired from American Renaissance School on May 31.


For 26 years, Sandy Durham has been the smiling face that greets American Renaissance School students in the mornings.

She’s also answered the phones, calmed anxious parents, served as the unofficial back-up school nurse and made sure all the bills get paid. And it’s hard to imagine anyone has given out more hugs to elementary school students than “Miss Sandy” during that time.

Durham, one of the Downtown Statesville charter school’s two longest-serving employees, officially retired on Friday, May 31. Her departure has created a challenge that ARS administrators have never faced — she’s been there since before the first day of the school’s first year.

“There is no one else like Sandy. She has truly been the face of the school for more than a quarter of a century,” said Jim Duffey, the school’s executive director. “She has a smile that is infectious, and she balances kindness with firmness when it comes to managing the wide variety of successes and struggles that come in the door every day.”

Replacing her will not be easy, Duffey added.

After graduating from West Iredell High School, Durham began her career at the Iredell County Health Department. A few jobs later, she was working for Kate Alice Dunaway at American Child, when Dunaway started the ARS elementary school in 1998.

“I said, ‘I’d like to go where you are,’ ” Durham recalled. “She said, ‘Get me your resume.’ And here we are.”

Starting with the merger of the elementary and middle schools, she has seen ARS grow and increase its footprint in downtown from one building to five with the recent opening of the intermediate school, gymnasium and Arts & STEM Center.

While its downtown location and emphasis on the arts make ARS unique, Durham said what makes ARS truly special are the people.

“We’re a family first,” she explained. “If someone is in need — kids, students or staff, we rally around them and support them.”

Over the past 26 years, Durham has watched 5-year-old kindergarteners grow into 31-year-old adults with kids of their own. Some of those first students are now parents of another generation of Gryphons. Several alumni are now staff members.

“It makes you feel good that they came back,” she said.

Like any job, there have been challenges along the way. Navigating the Covid-19 pandemic was not easy, with the social distancing, masking, quarantining and remote days. Some parents wanted their kids at school all time and others wanted 100 percent remote learning. Durham was in the middle of it all.

“It was hard, but we made it,” she said.

There were many memorable days along the way, including the time that the board chairman set off the smoke alarms by making the pancakes “a little too crispy” while playing volunteer chef in Kim Smyth’s classroom.

There was also the time she was vacationing at the beach and heard someone shouting, “Miss Sandy! Miss Sandy!”

Although she’s accustomed to running into past and present students around Statesville, Durham was surprised to see one hundreds of miles away. “Oh, my Lord. I can’t escape,” she remembers thinking at the time. “That was funny!”

When asked what she will miss the most about her job, Durham did not hesitate to answer.

“I’m going to miss the kids,” she said. “That’s going to be the hardest thing.”

By her estimate, more than 3,000 students have walked through the school’s doors during Durham’s career. And she undoubtedly hugged most of them.

Durham has some big plans for the next chapter of her life.

From spending more time with her parents, Buddy and Mary Wise, and her adult children — Micah and Ashton — to reading and traveling more with her husband Steve, Durham plans to make the most of her retirement.

Throughout their almost 40-year marriage, Sandy and Steve have enjoyed going to the beach and the mountains. He loves fishing and she can read for hours. Durham got the “travel bug” when they recently went to Germany with another couple. They’re already planning a trip out West.

Durham expects to ease into retirement by spending a lot of time by the pool this summer, but she anticipates that she’ll miss her work when the new school year begins in August.

She’s already planning to volunteer her time reading to students in the ARS elementary school — so there are still plenty of hugs in her future.

That made leaving on Friday a lot easier.

“I don’t want to say goodbye. I’ll say, ‘See you soon,’ ” she said.

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