Friday, September 2, 2011

Back to My Roots: The First Day of School at Hazel Valley, Cedarhurst, Hilltop, Valley View, and Midway

The first day of school is one of my favorite days. Yesterday, I stopped for gas on my way to work and couldn't help but notice the kids walking to Highline High School. They had a little more purpose in their posture. They wore clothes that seemed intentionally chosen for annual first impressions. There was palpable energy, even if mixed with a little bit of nerves. That's what the first day of school is all about. For me, it's one of the best days of the year.

For the first day of school, which also was my first official day as interim superintendent, I decided to visit the five schools I taught at in Highline as a young instrumental music teacher.

Hazel Valley Elementary

I planned my day as a big loop from one school to the next, not unlike in the mid-90s, when I packed my trombone and box of music supplies in the trunk of my 1991 Ford Taurus with a rebuilt transmission. First up was Hazel Valley.

Hazel Valley custodian Amin Shibly keeps the school looking better than new

Let me just say, Hazel Valley is a drop dead gorgeous school. It looks as good as when it opened, maybe better. When I taught there, it was the old brick schoolhouse. While I miss the wood covered floors and classic look of the old school, I don't miss walking across the dirt and gravel parking lot to our cramped music portable classroom.

Left to Right: Isuzu Niizuma, Jenny Chilson, and Johnathan Letcher

But a school is about people, not the bricks and mortar. At Hazel Valley, I met many folks. One joy was meeting Jenny Chilson and Isuzu Niizuma in the community room. Jenny is with the PTA and Isuzu is a former parent now working for the school, employing her bilingual skills to assist families. 

With the always dapper Principal Johnathan Letcher

Principal Johnathan Letcher took me on a tour of several classrooms. This was during the first hour of the new school year. We got to see little ones in Kristy Stuard and Chris Soetha's classes learning to wash hands efficiently and effectively and we visited Megan Parnell and Betty Minckler's Integrated Learning Center classes (ILCs). The ILCs hit the ground running with teaching on day one, and several student engaged in instructional computer programs. 

Thanks to Principal Letcher and the staff and students of Hazel Valley for letting me join them at the very beginning of their new school year.

Cedarhurst Elementary

Left to right: Janis Dingwall, Harmony Keane, and Jeana Ragghianti 
Next, I headed east on 128th across to Cedarhurst Elementary. While this, too, is a new school, I was greeted by familiar faces in the office, including Janis Dingwall, whose son Eric played drums in my band. She proudly informed me that Eric is now a graduate of WSU. Soon after, I saw Patti Shane, and her son is getting married. Not to make me feel old or anything. :-)

With Principal Bobbi Giammona (right) and AP Casey Jeannot (left)

Principal Bobbi Giammona led me on a tour of the school. One thing I learned is that the school is trying "recess before lunch."  There is research that suggests not only is it better to exercise before eating, but we don't want kids rushing through their lunch in anticipation of recess. There are some challenges to this new routine, too, but it's worth trying a new practice if it helps kids be healthy.

I loved getting into classrooms and meeting the students of Cedarhurst. One 3rd grade student instantly recognized new assistant principal Casey Jeannot, as they both were at Hilltop last year. It was a good reminder of the importance of connections with students, especially for students at a new school.

With a student explaining his reader's notebook
Just a couple of hours into the new school year, I saw lots of learning going on. Students were journaling about their reading, gathered in the library to read, and just plain reading. Eight years ago, we actually had to track which schools started reading on the first day of school. Now, the first day is academic from day one, a tribute to the hard work and focus of staff.

What was striking at Cedarhurst was campus spirit. Principal Giammona handed "Paw Pride" to classes who were walking the halls with, well, pride.

With Jackie Faundez, one of our bilingual tutors when I was at Beverly Park

Thanks to Cedarhurst for letting me back in to enjoy the first day of school.

Hilltop Elementary

Back on 128th, I drove past the old Boulevard Park site. It was a decaying old school building when I was teaching. Now, it's a beautiful SeaTac park. While I'm glad I know the history of the Boulevard Park school, it's a good reminder to look to the future, and not the past.

Hilltop students heading out in their new uniforms

What's new at Hilltop this year? School uniforms. Parents voted to have uniforms by a margin of 85% in favor. The school joins Madrona and Midway with uniforms. McMicken Heights also added uniforms this year. Hilltop's uniforms are dark blue, light blue, or white shirts with khaki or blue pants.

Teacher Martha Gibson was one of many to share with me how proud students are of the new look. Principal Rick Wisen told me this has been one of the smoothest starts to the school year ever.

In Joleen Cross' classroom with Principal Rick Wisen

Instructionally, classes were already dialed in. We visted several classrooms, including those of Carolyn Koziol, Lynette Noyes, and Greg Martin, and the teaching and learning never stopped.  It's a good sign when the students don't even notice me - as hard as that might seem to believe!

I also met Linnell Pitt, a student teacher from UW who is learning from Hilltop teacher Joleen Cross. These kinds of relationships are mutually beneficial, and every year we are able to hire many bright young teachers who have interned in our classrooms.

UW student teacher Linelle Pitt works with a student

With its new blue and white look, Hilltop is off to a great start!

Valley View Early Learning Center

I didn't spend much time at Valley View. Why? They don't have any students yet. Their four year olds in the ECEAP program start September 19th and their Special Education program for 3 and 4 year olds starts the 12th. In the meantime, staff is getting ready and some are in kindergarten classrooms finishing the transition of their former students. I promised Valley View's administrator Annah Petersen-Benitez that I'll be back when students are there.
Of course, Valley View was once an elemenary school. It was a spirited place that I remember fondly. I remember the old principal, Jan Tietz, and some of the staff, including Michael Thorson, Carlyn Roedell, and Ginnie Brossard (among too many to name).

In my old Valley View classroom with Candy Grant (left) and Kelsey Sikma

Of the five schools I taught in, Valley View is the only one where my actual classroom still exists. I used to share it with Colleen Thomas, who now teaches music at North Hill Elementary. When I dropped in, I found that it is now a special education classroom and much to my surprise, one of the staff members who uses it is Candy Grant, parent of former music students of mine at Hazel Valley! What a small world, and a delightful surprise.

Midway Elementary

Last but not least, my first day tour took me to Midway. I have so many pleasant memories of teaching at Midway, which was an intermediate school when I taught there from 1994 to 1997. Intermediate schools had only grades 4-6, which provided lots of students to join the band program, and supportive teachers like Theresa Duhamel and Keitha Bryson encouraged students to try an instrument. Unbelieveably, we had more than 100 students in the band program at that time.

With Midway 6th grade students

The Midway of today is a different place, both in terms of the community composition and the academic focus of the school. In the recently released test state test scores, Midway made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) based on their significant improvement. Staff celebrated with a flash mob dance and I'm sorry I missed it!

With second year Midway Principal Rebekah Kim

I met Principal Rebekah Kim in the lunchroom at the end of 6th grade lunch and we visited a few classrooms. One class I specifically asked to visit was Franli Newman's 6th grade class. Franli is the daugther of Z.Z. Newman, who works in the Family Center at the district office. Sixth graders beware...Ms. Newman was giving a spelling test on the first day of school! Summer's over, kids. :-)

Franli Newman administers a spelling test to her 6th grade class

As I had seen all day, students were engaged in learning. There was a time when the first day of school was all about orientation and relationship building, but no more. Those things happen, but we hit the ground running.

Before leaving, Principal Kim showed me a mobile cart that carries netbook computers. We purchased hundreds of netbooks over the summer to support our new adaptive math program. They are cost effective ways to get computers into the hands of more students, and kids love them. More importantly, our computer adaptive math program pilots are showing results, as our district growth in math exceeded growth statewide in every MSP grade level!

Thanks again to Rebekah and all of my accommodating hosts on the first day of school!

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