MANATEE -- The Manatee County School District welcomed students back to the classroom Monday morning after a busy close to the summer, with 69 teacher contract renewals and new additions to senior staff.
Manatee County is rolling out the new school year with about 45,800 students and 2,450 teachers.
Five elementary schools in Manatee County will also be seeing a big change in their school day with an additional hour of learning.
The first day back also came just days after the suspension of four district staff members in the investigation of former Manatee High football coach Rod Frazier.
Don Sauer, the principal at Manatee High School, said the first day was "organized chaos" as 2,510 high school students found their way to their homerooms.
Sauer said Manatee High was able to rehire four or five teachers, refilling the positions of an English teacher and a physical education teacher.
"All is well in administration," Sauer said. "We have a great staff that pitches in and that has offered to do anything. There are changes every year in schools; you just have to get used to change."
Sauer still has some va
cancies to fill, including a retirement in two weeks and an opening for a drama teacher.
One of the biggest challenges in staff changes is that students become used to seeing familiar faces at school, Sauer sad.
"When I came in as principal and other assistant principals, it was a change," he noted.
The Frazier case has drawn new focus to Manatee High School, Sauer acknowledged, but the staff is "keeping learning as the first priority."
"The staff is staying focused, even though it is a distraction," Sauer said.
He has confidence for the 2013-14 school year.
"We are an 'A' school, and we have to stay focused on staying an 'A' high school," Sauer said.
Jim Pauley, the new principal of Southeast High School, said the replacement of suspended assistant principal Matt Kane, a former assistant principal at Manatee High, will be up to the district.
"There is nothing earth-shattering here," Pauley said. "Everybody steps up. It doesn't matter if it is a bigger school, like Braden River where I used to be, or a smaller one."
With two other assistant principals on staff, Pauley said he is confident that duties will be fulfilled.
"Southeast has been a strong 'B' school the last two years, right at the cusp of an 'A'," Pauley said. "We are hoping to improve or maintain that."
This past year has been one of change for the district as a whole, particularly at Rowlett Elementary.
This could be Rowlett's last year as a district school before the conversion to a charter, if the school board approves the charter application Oct. 1.
Rowlett Principal Brian Flynn says he will be spending time this school year preparing for a smooth transition next year.
"There will not be drastic changes, but we will be making some changes," Flynn said.
"We still have our everyday operation of making sure kids are happy and safe."
Despite concern from parents that Rowlett would be lacking permanent teachers for the first day of school, Flynn said every teaching position has been filled through renewals and transfers.
"It was rushed, but we got everything in place," Flynn said.
Melissa Stochl, a parent of a Rowlett kindergartner, led a group of parents to sign and deliver letters to the school district earlier this month to express their concerns of starting the first day of school with a substitute.
Stochl said she is relieved after meeting her son's permanent teacher.
"I am very excited everybody came together and made a difference," Stochl said.
Joe Stokes, assistant principal at Samoset Elementary, said the first day of school is important to a student's success for the year.
"Teachers start procedures right away," Stokes said. "It is also a first impression factor. It's important to get off to the same start."
That first day can be a long morning as administrators, parents, teachers and teacher aides guide students, including many kindergartners, to their classes.
Stokes described the first day of elementary school as both an open house and an enrollment day, as Samoset Elementary still had open registration Monday.
Stokes said all students were finally settled in by 9:30 a.m., after a 7:45 a.m. breakfast and an 8:30 a.m. start to the school day.
Stokes said the first day is spent looking at the enrollment numbers in each class to make sure they are in alignment with the state class size amendment -- 18 students for kindergarten through third grade, 22 students for fourth through eighth grade and 26 students for ninth through 12th grade.
"I have been going through the kindergarten classes doing counts," Stokes said. "So far everything is accurate, on paper."
Samoset is one of the schools to have an extra hour of instruction at the end of the day, and Stokes said parents are still anticipating how the later schedule will fit into their personal schedules.
"The parents are supportive, and that schedule worked better for some," Stokes said. "There may be individual challenges, but overall the reaction is positive."
The first day of school for the district's five lowest-performing elementary schools in reading was preceded by a week-long workshop for staff in preparation for the schedule change. Those schools are Samoset Elementary, Palmetto Elementary, Orange-Ridge Bullock Elementary, Oneco Elementary and Daughtrey Elementary.
Every grade, kindergarten through fifth, will participate in the extra hour of school with reading and writing exercises added to the end of the school day.
Samoset Elementary Principal Pat Stream said third- through fifth-graders will spend part of that hour using Success Maker, a computer program that tracks progress and shows areas where the student has the most difficulty.
"Historically, the school day was a half-hour longer until 1997," Stream said. "Teachers who have been working in the district felt that was a loss, so in a way they got it back and then some."
Stream said Samoset's business partner, Harvest United Methodist Church, will be providing volunteers for reading, and there are still spots available to volunteer.
The United Way will also be sending reading volunteers to Daughtrey, Ballard, Blackburn and Rogers Garden elementary schools through its Reading Pals program.
Stream said that half of Samoset's students speak English as a second language.
"Fifty percent come from bilingual homes," Stream said. "That includes not only Spanish speaking, but also Haitian Creole."
Parents and students are not the only ones getting used to a new routine. Monday was also the first day back to school in Manatee County for Superintendent Rick Mills, who started by visiting nine schools on their first day, including Palmetto Elementary, Blackburn Elementary, Tillman Elementary, Lincoln Middle and Palmetto High.
"Getting to know everybody personally is important," Mills said.
Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081