QUINCY, W.Va. -- As students at Riverside High School, best friends Stephanie Smith and Christina Phalen joked with their teachers about one day being in charge.
"We would talk about how one day we would be the teachers, and our classrooms would be next to each other. It was a running joke, and now it's really happening," said Smith, now a math teacher at RHS.
"I always knew I would come back here. I'm always going to be a Warrior," said Phalen, as she prepared her English classroom for today's first day of school while wearing an RHS T-shirt from her high school years.
Smith and Phalen, both 2006 Riverside graduates, are among nine alumni who have returned after college to teach on their home turf.
The state Department of Education ranked Riverside among the lowest-achieving schools in the state, but the group of young alumni have played a big role in improving standardized test scores and attendance rates this year, according to Principal Valery Harper.
"The results are phenomenal. It will give the community something to celebrate," Harper said of the school's improved WESTEST scores, which will be officially released next week.
"The teachers are 100 percent committed -- they are a natural fit in our Riverside family," she said. "Some of them were my students, and it was amazing to watch them grow as kids, but it's an honor and a privilege to watch them grow as adults."
Tara Veazey, a 2001 Riverside graduate who now teaches chemistry, said as an alumna, she has a special connection to her students.
"I grew up here. I was one of these kids. I never wanted to teach anywhere else," she said. "There's a group of us that really wants to make a difference because we know what it's like and we know they have potential -- they just need someone to believe in them. We do."
Smith keeps her diploma from West Virginia University by her desk to help motivate her students when they're feeling discouraged.
"They tried to use excuses for why they shouldn't care about school, like, 'I'm a creeker.' They were shocked when I threw it back at them. I'd say, 'Don't tell me you can't do something because of where you're from,'" said Smith, of Marmet. "They don't get to use those excuses on us. We did it, and they can do it, too."
Not only are the teachers working on getting the students more interested in school and helping them prepare for their future, but they're making them proud of where they're from, Phalen said.
"Some of these kids don't have any support at home. They don't want to try because they don't think they can do it. As soon as they see that you believe in them, they work hard. They light up when they see how happy it makes us," she said. "We're making them proud to call this home, and we want them to be as excited as we are to be here. It's the Warrior way."
Reach Mackenzie Mays at Mackenzie.m...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5100.