Stepping behind the scenes before school opens for the academic year is similar to being on a bustling stage set — one where producers are preparing for a long run. Custodians clean and ready buildings; drivers inspect their buses; teachers attend professional development programs, arrange classrooms and set up their syllabus; librarians update the stacks. New teachers take part in intense orientations. Professors cross campus to faculty meetings and to meet new students. Teachers of English as a New Language begin testing students weeks before classes begins. School nurses set up charts and histories.
Syracuse public school nurse Celine Beers, R.N., was in the thick of welcoming students and meetings with parents in the very busy school health clinic on opening day Wednesday.
Out of 800-plus students at the Dr. Weeks Elementary School where she works, about 70 percent are signed up for the clinic. It is staffed by a nurse practitioner five days a week; services for students include medical, dental and mental health.
What happens in the clinic days before 800 pairs of sneakers and shoes step off the big yellow buses and into the school?
“A lot of paperwork, a lot of orders, a lot of meds, a lot of communicating with parents regarding their children’s health histories,” said Beers, a member of the Syracuse Teachers Association. Physicals are required for school, as are immunizations. Medications such as inhalers and Epipens (epinephrine auto injectors) need to be brought in and stored.
“They need doctor’s orders and consents,” she said, before needing to cut short our conversation in order to meet with a parent.
In northern New York, Tupper Lake elementary reading teacher Margaret O’Leary spent the days before the opening bell readying her small reading classroom. Construction projects at the school delayed teachers getting into the building, so there was a lot of heightened motion and action on Wednesday, the day before school began.
Jobs include making labels for desks, folders, journals and workbooks; decorating bulletin boards; setting up math manipulatives, which can be stacks of tiles, cubes or plastic pieces; choosing books; fine-tuning curriculum; sharpening pencils; and stocking up on snacks.
O’Leary creates goals for each of her students, who come to her in small groups to work on their reading skills. She selects books ahead of time according to the children’s needs, and also uses sight word cards with pictures.
“You have to be super organized because you have group after group after group,” said O’Leary, a member of Tupper Lake United Teachers. During the first few weeks of school, she will be testing students for their reading levels by using benchmark assessment systems.
Her job as a reading teacher came naturally to her after years of teaching in the classroom.
“The first day of school, I would have a bag of books on each desk, according to the student’s reading level. Fiction and nonfiction. I wanted them to know right away how important reading is,” O’Leary said. The first morning’s assignment for her second graders was to read.
As a classroom teacher, her before-school joy was to create a classroom library — no surprise from a teacher whose lap often holds a book.
“Making a really nice, cozy reading nook: That’s a big thing that teachers do,” said O’Leary. Walking around her school, you can find inviting reading nooks with rugs, bean bag chairs, rocking chairs, big pillows and even wiggle chairs.
Syracuse school library media specialist Jennifer Groff knows all about the love of cracking open a new book. This year she is sharing that love in her first year at Lincoln Middle School, where she is a member of the Syracuse TA.
Since it is her first year, Groff took part in a full two weeks of new-teacher orientation, focused largely on culturally responsive education and restorative practices.
“Many sessions were led by district educators and incorporated best practices, such as blended learning, small group instruction and diverse learning styles,” she explained.
The orientation was followed by a week of professional development and bonding before school opened to the students yesterday. The program included a walking tour of historical sites in Syracuse, exploring the city’s history as part of the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad.
Educators also hosted programs before the start of school for new students; the programs included games with staff.
“As for me, getting ready for students means sprucing up the library and setting out a lot of juicy new books!” said the exuberant Groff, who has also worked in public school libraries in Ithaca and Schenectady.
Downstate, Susan Polos, a member of the Bedford Teachers Association, is starting her second year as a high school librarian after many years working in elementary school. “The start of the school year meant sharing a vision for the library experience with a new principal,” she said.
Polos also spent time rethinking the library space to meet student needs by working with custodians to move furniture. She communicated with teachers to build on their new partnerships.
Before-school preparation for Polos also meant setting up book displays and clear signage, as well as connecting with students who want to take leadership roles in the library, whether through MakerSpace or book clubs, she said.
In another high school, located in Saratoga County, ENL teacher Patrice Delehanty and her colleagues started preparing for the school year several weeks earlier than that first September bell.
“I come in for testing the last two weeks of summer (break) for new students,” said Delehanty, a member of the Shenendehowa Teachers Association. If the ENL students are coming from another school in New York, they will have records and it’s easier to determine services they need. But others hail from other states and countries, so each of these students needs to be interviewed; their records must be hunted for and reviewed; and they may have to take a state, four-part test to determine eligibility for ENL services.
Next, Delehanty meets with the school’s guidance counselors to set up schedules for the ENL students, who have a required number of minutes of ENL services per week based on their proficiency level. She also attends intake meetings to meet the parents of her students, who hail from Central America, Pakistan, and Syria and Burma. Some have gaps in their education because their families could not afford to pay the fee to go to school.
“We run the gamut,” Delehanty said, noting that there are more and more ENL students every year.
On the second day of school, she has each student make a flag of their country out of construction paper, instructing them initially by acting out, or translating online.
“I make one to model it and we’ll have the flags in the classroom the rest of the year,” she said.
Mark Lienau teaches grades 7-12 science in St. Regis Falls, including physics and chemistry. Classes started today and, in preparation, he attended several schoolwide meetings and department meetings, along with many smaller meetings to discuss students and programs, including IEP — Individualized Education Program plans.
“I am up to meeting the challenges of the new standards … 3-D all the way!” said the veteran science teacher.
In his class, he posts classroom rules, timely news items relevant to science and topographic maps of the town, which is located in Franklin County, near the border of Vermont, where he has taught for nearly 30 years.
The bell is ringing. Time for school.