They're back: Summer at an end, but students and teachers excited to return to school

Rain showers threatened to put a bit of an early morning damper on the day, but the clouds parted just in time for Tuesday morning’s start to the new year in the Greenwich Public Schools.

All around the district special ceremonies kicked off the new year and students shook off the last little bits of summer to get back to work. Throughout town, school officials sought to get off to a fast start through pumping up their students, like at New Lebanon School where an unofficial “pep rally” was held by Principal Barbara Riccio.

“We’re going to move ahead this year and think about how much we’re going to grow,” Ms. Riccio told her students. “We’re going to reflect on it every single day so we know how much we’re growing.”

This is a critical year for New Lebanon School as they continue to develop as a magnet school using the International Baccalaureate (IB) teaching method. Evaluation from IB officials to see how the program is progressing is scheduled for October, something that’s very much on the mind of Ms. Riccio, the teachers and the staff. But in the immediate, Ms. Riccio urged her students to embrace the challenges of the new year and focus on the lessons of this year’s theme “how you grow.” Ms. Riccio said it was going to be the central idea and question of the school year for all the students at New Lebanon.

In a brief address to all first through fifth grades in the school’s gymnasium at the very beginning of the school day, Ms. Riccio asked students how they had grown from last year, some talked about how they were now less nervous to meet new people and make friends and others talked about how they were eager to learn even more than they had the year before.

“Have a wonderful day, have a beautiful year and let’s grow together,” Ms. Riccio told her students before they headed off to class.

Of course this is not just the first day of school for Greenwich’s students. For the new teachers it is a day of official introduction to the district, just as it is for Christopher Weiss, the new principal of Riverside School, who takes over for longtime Principal John Grasso, who retired at the end of last year. Mr. Weiss was greeted to his new post by his students through the traditional Riverside School parade of learners where all the students from kindergarten through fifth grade march into the school.

Mr. Weiss said he believed the blue sky they got for the parade was a good omen for the year and that everyone in the school is excited to get started. He told the Post that his “tremendous team and great parent community” have made it an easy transition for him at Riverside School.

“It’s a fantastic school to be principal of,” Mr. Weiss said. “I’m very honored to have this opportunity. Mr. Grasso and others have paved the way for the excellent school we have. The staff and the students and the PTA all work together here to create a wonderful school community.”

But, perhaps most significantly, this was also the first day of school in Greenwich for new Superintendent of Schools William McKersie. While Dr. McKersie was hired at the end of the last school year and visited every school in the district as well as attended a Board of Education meeting, he didn’t officially take over until last month. Since then he’s not only been getting ready for his own job, but making sure everyone else is ready for theirs and he told the Post this week that he has no doubt the district is set to hit the ground running this year.

“I am completely confident that the district is ready to start the year,” Dr. McKersie said on Monday, the eve of the new school year. “Over the past two weeks I’ve been working with the leaders in our schools and they are doing a great job. Last week we had our convocation and I met with our new teachers to see how they’re getting adjusted and I have to say that they are an extremely talented group. All around, everyone is energized and ready.”

There was noticeable enthusiasm in the air at the district’s schools as classes officially began on Tuesday. As part of the opening day, the eight members of the Board of Education all visited schools and the trip to New Lebanon was a bit of a homecoming for board Vice Chairman Barbara O’Neill, who used to teach the Advanced Learning Program there.

“This is a wonderful school,” Ms. O’Neill said. “There’s always such a wonderful energy here and there’s nothing like the first day of school. It’s the best thing about education and teaching. You can start all over and do what you did well last year even better and fix the mistakes you made.”

Dr. McKersie said this has been a total effort from everyone involved, crediting the principals and administrators, teachers, custodians and the whole district staff. He said everyone had been working incredibly hard and that there were none of the major opening issues that have plagued schools in the past, though some, like last year’s unwelcome appearance from Hurricane Irene that delayed the opening of school, were natural disasters.

He said the only issue so far this year was one small air conditioning problem in a wing at Western Middle School but that was being addressed.

“We are ready to go and we are very excited about that,” Dr. McKersie said.

Last Thursday the school district held its annual convocation where the district’s teachers and staff were addressed by Dr. McKersie and others, including Board of Education Chairman Leslie Moriarty and PTA Council President Lisa Beth Savitz. In his address to the close to 1,300 in attendance for the event at Greenwich High School, Dr. McKersie said he was able to cite 11 stories he had learned about Greenwich that showed academic achievement and civic dedication in the district and held to the theme of “celebrating what matters most for our students.”

“These were examples that showed the excellence that is already in this district and I know it resonated with the teachers and staff,” Dr. McKersie said. “To hear from the superintendent that there are great things already happening in this district is so important. Celebrating teacher and student accomplishments is something we have to do.”

But there is work to be done and Dr. McKersie said he feels everyone is ready to do it.

“We have to work on trust,” Dr. McKersie said. “There’s not a successful school system or really any kind of organization that works without having trust. We have to make sure there is a foundation of trust here and that we can build upon it.”

Dr. McKersie said this is not just empty words to give a “touchy-feely” cap to his address, but something based on “solid evidence” where having trust sets the tone for academic success in a school district.

Dr. McKersie said this was also a chance to talk about celebrating the positive in things like test scores and other areas of academic achievement, but also, when things don’t work out with the results you wanted, dealing with them openly and working to make sure things get better.

Ms. Savitz said at the convocation she wanted to urge teachers to get involved with PTA. While the first day of school for her is more focused on being a parent to three sons in the system, the oldest of whom is now a senior at Greenwich High School and the youngest just started middle school, during the school year as a whole she wants to make sure teachers know they can help by getting involved with the PTA.

“We don’t want to neglect the T in PTA,” Ms. Savitz said. “We want to make sure we’re working with teachers as much as we’re working with parents.”

On Tuesday, Ms. Moriarty visited 14 of the 16 district schools and said she loved what she saw there.

“It’s terrific to see our students so excited and see our buildings in such great shape,” Ms. Moriarty told the Post. “We’re starting off the year strong.”

The Board of Education is poised to have its first meeting of the new school year tonight at 7 in the Town Hall Meeting Room and the agenda will include a discussion of the recent standardized test scores.

Since this is his “first day of school” in Greenwich, Dr. McKersie said it is a significant one for him. Next year it will be even more significant though when it is the real first day of school for his daughter who will be entering kindergarten in the district.

“Having grown up in education it’s a day that’s always very special,” Dr. McKersie said. “It’s a new beginning. As a student you don’t know who your teacher is and you don’t know what to expect and it’s very exciting to have a fresh start on the year. Obviously as a superintendent it’s a little different, but it’s a special day because it’s a chance to really get to work on your goals with a wonderful staff and faculty and dedicated parents.”


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