It’s Time to Go Back to School

After an exciting first day, Haldane faces challenges

By Michael Turton

The annual, late-summer rite of “back to school” took place locally and at thousands of schools across much of the country this week. Haldane opened its doors on Sept. 5 (Wednesday) to slightly more than 900 students from kindergarten to grade 12. According to Superintendent of Schools Mark Villanti, the exact number won’t be known for a week or two.

For Villanti and many others who work in public education, the first day of school is a bit like baseball’s opening day. “I put on a new tie almost each year. I soak in the energy and excitement of our students and staff as I walk around the campus,” Villanti said. “The last thought that comes to mind is watching our kindergartners start school as their parents drop them off, while equally observing our senior class and how they handle the responsibility of now serving as the campus leaders.”

All eyes are to the front as Stephanie Ryan reads a story to this first-grade class. Photo by M. Turton

It promises be a challenging year for all of Haldane’s leadership. Villanti said that high on his list of priorities will be “planning early to prepare for the loss of another half a million dollars in state aid.” In contrast, he said that seeking school board and community support for the proposed sports field, locker room, and auditorium renovation project is also one of the year’s significant initiatives.

But for Villanti, education always comes down to people, and one of his most important issues will be “maintaining the energy and excitement for public education among staff and the community in a time of declining resources and ‘education bashing’ that tends to be in fashion in some circles.”

For High School Principal Brian Alm, the first day of school is something beyond special. “There is something particularly magical about every first day of school. There is an energy in the building unlike any other place or profession,” he said. “If you ask veteran educators about this, they will always say it is the same whether in year one or year 36.”

Alm said that continuing to focus on college and career readiness will be a priority in the year ahead. “We are refining our systems to be more diagnostic and prescriptive … to ensure (that) readiness.” Haldane’s Academic Standards Committee will look at “soft data” that is not “numbers-driven” as indicators of college and career readiness, Alm said. “We want to ensure that our graduates will leave Haldane poised to become good citizens, capable of formulating a strong argument, giving a great presentation, and interviewing well.”

Brent Harrington is principal of the elementary and middle schools. “In the elementary school, our main priority (will be) building comfort with a balanced-literacy approach to our reading and writing instruction, and providing the necessary support and training for teachers to use … assessment data to target the specific needs of students.” In the middle school, Harrington said, “it should come as no surprise that in our grades 5-8 math work is a priority. Dr. Monica Merritt from Mount Saint Mary will be working with our teachers to realign our curriculum and encourage more student-centered, inquiry-based instruction.”

On a more personal level, Harrington said he is keen on developing a formalized character-education curriculum for certain grades this year and committing to having it as part of curriculum for grades K-8 the following year.

During lunch, Elementary and Middle School Principal Brent Harrington talks to a group of fourth-grade boys about summer vacation. Photo by M. Turton

Alison Casey is a special education teacher in the middle school. “The first week of school is exciting … a fresh start,” she said. “I especially enjoy getting to know a new group of students and continuing with students I’ve taught previously. Because of the nature of my job, I get to know students and their families very well.”

Casey is also president of the Haldane Faculty Association, the teachers’ union. She said that in that role, a top priority will be to work with administration in educating the faculty about the new teacher evaluation system (APPR) in New York state. “Aligning curricula to the new Common Core Standards will also be important,” she said, “with a particular emphasis on writing across the curriculum to help our students be college and career ready.”

Haldane Board of Education President Mike Junjulas acknowledged that 2012-13 will be a tough year and that, in his view, adopting a creative, team approach will be the key. The board’s annual retreat was held at his house recently. Team building was the focus, and the session opened with each participant giving a 15-minute self-description. “It was a chance for us to really hear what each trustee does — for work, with their family, hobbies,” Junjulas said. “By doing this we should all remember we are human beings, and when times get tough, or we disagree on a topic, the bottom line is we will still treat each other with respect and dignity. We need to listen to all ideas and be open for changes that may take us outside of the ‘box.'”

On Wednesday, as students left summer vacation behind for good, Haldane’s classrooms were a beehive of activity. The playground was filled with the chatter of happy, young voices. Smiling cafeteria workers doled out lunches to long lines of students. From grades 1 through 12, teachers were getting down to business, welcoming students back, explaining the ground rules, and outlining the work ahead. Kindergarten students sat wide-eyed in the gym as their first-ever day of school unfolded. And later in the day, after the final bell had sounded, it is a pretty safe bet that at least one student, walking down Cedar Street on his way home, said to himself, “One day down and only 179 to go!”

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