First day of school in Manatee a whirlwind for students and employees alike

mdelaney@bradenton.comAugust 18, 2014 

BRADENTON -- Whether for new or returning students or teachers, the first day of school is a whirlwind.

There were backpacks sporting the latest cartoon characters from movies, hoards of unsharpened pencils and notebook paper, boxes upon boxes of tissues, a few tearful parents (and maybe students), colorful signs directing traffic and a general air of excitement and anxiety in the Manatee County School District.

For Superintendent Rick Mills, it's exhilarating.

"This is what it's all about," he said Monday afternoon after visiting seven of his 53 schools for the first day of the 2014-15 school year.

More than 47,000 students and 5,200 employees -- and 2,360 teachers -- returned to their campuses Monday. Almost 170 buses traveled more than 19,000 miles, using 3,750 gallons of fuel to transport 16,000 students.

Regardless of the relationship to the school -- teacher, student, parent, volunteer, bus driver, board member, or even superintendent -- Monday was special.

"First-day jitters. Who has first-day jitters?," Mills said to a classroom full of students at Rogers Garden Elementary, while sheepishly raising his own hand.

The first day of school was not without a few hiccups. Some students at Lincoln Middle School still needed schedule changes, one parent emailed the superintendent because a bus was tardy, many schools were still scrambling to register late arrivals and the air conditioning wasn't running properly at Rogers Garden.

"We're hot for learning," joked Latrina Singleton, the new principal at Rogers Garden, as she showed off her new school.

For Auria Mounts, Monday was just hot. Mounts, a 17-year-old senior at Palmetto High School, escaped the beating sun to sit inside during her lunch period on her last first day of high school.

"It actually feels kind of normal," she said. Mounts, a pitcher on the softball team, wants to pursue softball after graduation. "I've got to get through the first week, though."

Stephanie Seacat was more concerned with getting through the first day. She brought her twin daughters to kindergarten at Freedom Elementary and couldn't help but cry on her way out the door. She said she's excited for her daughters, who were in the same class and wearing matching dresses for their first day, but she was also emotional.

"It's going to be a weepy day," she said, wiping away tears.

For first-time teachers, Monday's focus was on getting to know new students. On Monday, Mays started as a first-year English language arts teacher at Lincoln Middle School. She spent the week before school preparing her classroom and getting ready for her students.

"I've got a lot of pep talks," she said. "I want all my students to succeed."

Tony Alves' seventh-grade math classroom at Lincoln was conspicuously empty, a sharp contrast to many other classrooms. There were no math charts or cheat sheets hanging on the wall, no encouraging messages or words of wisdom. The room was bare and empty.

"I don't have much stuff to put up on the wall," Alves, in his first-year at Lincoln, told a class of students. "That's your job. You're going to do that."

For Mills, who started at 5:45 a.m. cheering and waving good-bye to bus drivers as they started their routes, Monday meant a lot of hand-shaking, smiling and wishing teachers and students a good year. He criss-crossed the district, visiting all different levels of schools, even stopping for lunch at Palmetto High School.

At Palmetto, Mills ate a pulled pork sandwich and beans from the cafeteria while talking shop with Principal Willie Clark. Mills was slated to eat with the high school students but "they have no interest in talking to me," he said.

At Palmetto, there's been an explosion of students. Registration is already up at least 100 students, Clark said.

"It's packed," Clark said. "The hallways are getting a little tight."

While checking in with students and watching classroom teachers start instruction, Mills also greeted office staff. The district recently ended a contract with Sun Print and pulled almost 2,100 printers out of classroom. Now, there are more centralized locations for teachers and staff to print from. In the coming weeks, the district plans to buy a couple hundred more printers to help ease the transition until a more permanent solution can be found, Mills said.

"Are you comfortable with this?" he asked Sugg Middle School assistant principal Brad Baietto as the two looked over the school's plan.

"We're OK with it," he said. "We're operational."

In the classrooms, the students were more than operational, with many teachers jumping right into lesson plans and even assigning homework.

At Sea Breeze Elementary School, students worked on completing a cup pyramid challenge in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics lab, using only string and rubber bands to stack red cups. The exercise taught basic engineering and also required intense teamwork and coordination from fourth-grade students.

All fifth-grade teachers spent the afternoon focused on the scientific method, going over definitions and having students take notes. The jump directly into instruction was a product of teacher planning and coordination, said Principal Shirin Gibson.

Getting the students settled in and working is key, said Gibson's assistant principal Cheryl McGrew.

"We don't have any time to waste," she said.

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