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Teachers return, ready for new school year

MANATEE — The plants are watered. The lab equipment rests on counters, waiting for the first experiment.

Now all Manatee High School chemistry teacher Peg Miller needs is her pupils.

“I’m ready,” Miller said, as she walked out of her classroom Tuesday. She’s one of about 2,500 of Manatee County school district teachers who returned for their first official workday of the 2009-10 school year.

The district’s instructors get a week in their classrooms before students arrive Monday.

Teachers on Tuesday began decorating, conferring with coworkers and meeting with school administrators to discuss their goals for the year. Hundreds also attended a motivational pep rally at the Manatee Convention and Civic Center in Palmetto where Max Thompson, a U.S. Office of Education consultant, spoke on the national direction of education and gave teachers insight into what they need to do to increase student achievement.

At Manatee High, the school’s Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test grade was a hot topic during a morning meeting. The school scored a B last year, one grade lower than the year prior when it scored an A.

“We have a motivated faculty who are anxious to get the kids back,” said Manatee High principal Robert Gagnon.

So during the morning hours Tuesday, school staffers met with Gagnon to discuss what needed to be done to boost their grade.

“We talked about what we need to do to get back to an A,” said Advanced Placement literature and reading teacher Michelle McCarthy. “From Day One we know what our expectations are and what we want to achieve.”

During the rest of the day, McCarthy spent time setting up her classroom and interviewing candidates for one last English instructor opening at the school.

“I’m just excited for a new year, to incorporate some success from the past as well as preview necessary changes for the future,” she said. One change, she said, includes getting new English textbooks.

While some teachers spent time setting up their rooms, Southeast High School Future Farmers of America teacher Mike Buckley patiently waited to get started on his. That’s because construction, including installing a new AC unit, is finishing up at the school on 37th Avenue East.

So he and a handful of other teachers are waiting for an OK to move in.

When he does, he plans to drag in a few earth boxes that his students will use to grow herbs and tomatoes. They’ll plant them next week.

This year he plans to join forces with the school’s culinary instructor, chef Mike Niewodowski.

“My students can plant it and grow it, but they don’t know what happens after it gets picked,” he said. “My class will show his class how they are planted. Then when we harvest them, we’ll go to the culinary lab and have his class how us how make salsa.”

Although Monday was the first day back in the building for many teachers, some, including Bayshore High School music teacher Lynne Hodalski-Champagne, got a head start this summer on preparations for the new school year.

“My husband and I have been here all summer, so we are pretty much putting the finishing touches on the classroom,” she said.

“But the work never ends ... You’re always planning the next project, but it’s fun. You always have a different group of kids to work with so there is always new talent coming your way. It can come from the kids you’ve been working with for years or a new one out of the blue.”