A first day for students and superintendent alike

As parents drop off their children on the first day of school, the new district leader takes a whirlwind tour to meet his charges.

By PAULETTE LASH RITCHIE, Times Correspondent
Published August 21, 2007

A few minutes after 8 a.m. Monday, the first day of the school year, newly appointed superintendent Dr. Wayne Alexander stepped out of his office and began a whirlwind tour of his new district. His goal was to visit every campus to say hello and meet teachers, administrators and students.

He didn't get to all 21 of them, but before the end of the school day, Alexander had walked the halls of 17 schools, shaken dozens of hands and made mental notes of the good things going on and what needed work.

He traveled with the executive director of the Hernando County Education Foundation, Kathleen Reitz, who dropped him off at front gates, made introductions and chauffeured him from school to school.

At the first stop, D.S. Parrott Middle School, Alexander got a taste of the district's security system for visitors, as he was required to submit his driver's license for identification before he could enter the school.

And he encountered the first of numerous students he would see throughout the day wandering around lost. But there was always someone close by to help the befuddled newcomers on their way.

Alexander was impressed by the security he found at the schools: Doors were locked everywhere. "These schools are like fortresses," he said. "They are the safest places in America."

He made a point of stopping in many of the schools' cafeterias, recognizing the role of food service in a student's day. The cafeterias smelled of pizza and meatball sandwiches.

Alexander moved on to West Hernando Middle School, where he popped into a classroom and asked a student, "What's going on?" The student answered succinctly: "School."

At Central High School, Alexander got a good look at the ninth-grade concreteables, an alternative to portables. Concreteables are preformed structures manufactured at their home plant, then trucked to the school sites and set into place with cranes. Most of the freshmen at Central are clustered into the two-story concreteable.

Alexander arrived at Pine Grove Elementary School just in time for the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, and for his first encounter with a teacher - who didn't have students at the moment - with her shoes off. "I'm putting stuff together," she explained.

At Spring Hill Elementary School, Alexander learned about "Boo Hoo Breakfasts." These were found at a couple of schools and were for parents having a difficult time parting from their first-time kindergarten students. At Spring Hill, these parents received coffee, danish pastries and information on how to be effective readers to their children.

After visiting Fox Chapel Middle School and checking out the technology lab and the science and math rooms, it was on to Deltona Elementary School, which draws the county's west-side special education students.

The school has an age-typical population and students with varying exceptionalities. Alexander visited several classrooms to see how these students are being served.

At Westside Elementary School, Alexander commented on another security measure: "We've spent some serious money on these chain-link fences." Inside, he found some children wearing laminated yellow bands around their heads as they went to lunch. The bands had the children's names and cafeteria account numbers on them. "You look beautiful," Alexander said, smiling down at the youngsters.

The next two schools on the itinerary were Suncoast Elementary and Springstead High. At Springstead, Alexander encountered one of his pet peeves, a slumbering student. He gently woke the teen, telling him, "First day of school, son, you need to be awake."

At John D. Floyd Elementary School, he had a slight collision with a front-desk worker and a chance to demonstrate his sense of humor. "You almost killed your superintendent the first day of work," he told her.

At Powell Middle School, finding locked doors everywhere, Alexander reiterated his earlier observation. "You've got to be real impressed at the safety and security at each school," he said.

Driving again, Alexander recognized the value of the day's visits. "I have learned and taken something away from each school."

The next few stops were the district's three magnet schools: Challenger K-8, the district's newest school, which attracts students talented in science and mathematics; Chocachatti Elementary School; and Nature Coast High School.

At Chocachatti, Alexander found his second shoeless teacher, who explained that she was simply sore after a long day.

Around 2:30 p.m. at Moton Elementary School, it became evident that some students were beginning to tire. "I wanna go home" one kindergartener whined.

Alexander reflected on his busy day. He said he loved hearing a teacher right off the bat talk to her students about Sunshine State Standards. "Day one she's telling the kids," he said. "That was impressive."

He said he liked the procedures he saw in place, saying there was "a feeling of being in your mid-season form." He suggested things that need attention included cutting grass and customer friendliness, particularly after having to stand and wait to be acknowledged at one of the schools for a long while.

After a final stop, at Eastside Elementary, it was too late to visit Hernando High School, Brooksville Elementary School, the STAR Education Center and Gulf Coast Academy of Science and Technology.

His overall impression on the first day of school was good.

"I saw kids engaged. I saw teachers teaching. It didn't feel like Day 1. It felt comfortable," he said. "I get the sense that everyone realizes that we're all responsible for educating kids."