Enough school firsts to go around

Teachers and students find they have lots of new things to learn as another year begins.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
Published August 21, 2007

WESLEY CHAPEL - It's 8:30 a.m. Monday, a full hour before the first day of classes begins at Seven Oaks Elementary, yet parents jam the school office for last- minute registration and bus assignments.

Kids aren't allowed in their classrooms for another 55 minutes.

Melissa Fairbanks is thankful for that.

The 21-year-old first-year teacher didn't sleep much the night before. Her computerized attendance system isn't working. She can't get her "Today is ______" calendar sign to stay on the wall.

"I'm extremely nervous," Fairbanks says to her team leader, Cory Tringali.

"We know a lot of these kids and their parents," Tringali responds. "They really are awesome. You'll be fine, honey."

Fairbanks smiles and turns back to her computer.

Pasco County returned to school on Monday, with nearly 65,000 children expected to fill the classrooms.

The district opened five new schools, including two in Wesley Chapel, two in Land O'Lakes and one in Holiday. More than 400 new teachers, including Fairbanks, joined the district, which had just 38 open teaching jobs remaining. Seven Oaks, which opened in 2005, hired the most.

Out in the school's passageways, groups of children and parents swelled while awaiting the opening bell. They lugged plastic bags filled with tissue, zipper bags, paper towels and the like.

"They ask for too much stuff," said Matty Nardin, who had a stroller loaded with supplies as she walked daughter Nicole and son Leonardo to class. "But they need it."

Several had cameras and video recorders.

"She's my only child, and it's her first day of kindergarten," Kari Turbeville explained, after snapping a pic of daughter Hailey. "I definitely want to have pictures to remember this."

Even with the rules, the teachers couldn't hold the flood of families at bay too long. Moms and dads "sneaked" in to meet the teacher, ask a question, help their child settle in. Fairbanks greeted all with a cheery "good morning" that belied her nerves.

She got down to their eye level, talked to each one and had them get busy on a "getting to know you" activity. First-grader Autumn Javier, 6, was excited to meet her new teachers and get going.

"The teachers are good because they're nice," Autumn said. "And I like to meet my friends."

Autumn's mom, Lisa, said she could tell Fairbanks was "young and new," but not that Monday was her first day, too. Besides, she added, it doesn't matter.

"I'm totally okay with that. Everybody has got to start at some time," Javier said. "She seems like she's got it under control. You've got to stand back and let them do their thing."

As parents trickled out, Fairbanks finally realized that things would be fine. Parents had accepted her as an authority figure, nothing had blown up and, best of all, the kids were great, just like Tringali had promised.

"I just love the kids," Fairbanks said.

By 10:30 a.m., the day was well under way at Cox Elementary in Dade City, where classes began at 8:40 a.m. The school is under pressure this year, facing "restructuring" if it can't meet federal progress guidelines by the end of the year.

The pressure isn't being put on the children's shoulders. Rather, teachers are working hard to make sure the kids understand they can achieve.

"Achieving starts with believing," as one sign plastered to the entranceway declared.

"That is our motto, and we are really going to help to inspire the kids to believe that they can achieve," principal Leila Mizer said.

While some teachers focused on procedures and rules, others homed in on skills from the get-go. Eleyes Larmond had her first-graders working on rhyming words and letter sounds.

"I want them from the first day of school to get into the mood, to get into the schedule that at school we're going to read and write, think and listen," Larmond said.

She didn't worry about the federal sanctions in the offing, if the school doesn't meet its goals.

"Once I plan, I don't worry about what will happen," she said. "I teach, they practice. I know eventually there is going to be some learning."

Fourth-grader Michael Ortiz, 9, deemed the return to school "great."

"You learn a lot," he said. "It's fun."

The last day of school is June 4 - 289 days away.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or 813 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.