By Greg Ritchie
ELKHART – Elkhart Independent School District (EISD) welcomed back students officially to class Thursday, Aug. 11. At the main complex students paraded between campuses going to lunch as sixth graders got used to changing classes. In the elementary cafeteria, the children brought out their lunchboxes – packed with special care for the first day. Teachers and administrators roamed the tables helping children open bags and juice boxes. With a half day of school already behind them, the children seemed giddy but well-behaved. And hungry!
Second grade elementary school teacher Monica Foster moved her students to the restrooms in groups before they headed out to lunch. She was almost as giddy as the students.
“The first day is wonderful,” Foster said. “The kids are excited to be back. I am excited to be back! Second grade will continue to teach them to read. We are going to work on their addition and subtraction skills. I have not seen one of my kids not excited to be back.”
EISD Elementary School Principal Kristin Steely agrees it’s good to be back with the children. Steely is in her third year as principal. Before that, she helped students at the high school prepare for their careers. When she used to bring older students to the elementary school to help teach, she fell in love with the younger kids. She agreed that was a big change, from one end of the spectrum to the other.
“It was a big change. I think the thing that is the same, though, is that we have the same goal in mind – and that’s preparing our children for their future,” Steely explained. “We inspire them to dream in whatever direction they may choose. Since I have that background from the high school we start that process here in elementary. We want our kids to know about college now. Whatever they set their mind to they can achieve it.
EISD has also taken stringent measures to protect the staff and students at their campuses. Outside doors are locked, entrances are restricted, and classroom doors must be opened by teachers or designated administrators. The schools use the Guardian Program, which includes certain staff trained and armed at each campus.
The children do not seem to notice much of this which means the school still feels like school. In the middle school, the sixth graders were still trying to navigate the new campus and get into the rhythm of moving to a new class when the bell rings.
Middle school principal Roger Mays brought the kids and the parents in before school started so that each child would be ready for the first day. Mays was proud that the extra training had paid off on the first day.
“I was really impressed! Especially with our sixth-graders. They are still a little nervous about following a schedule, but I really couldn’t ask for anything better than today,” Mays said.
Mays showed off first-year Elkhart teacher Kaysy Vaughn’s seventh-grade math class. The class seemed more like a university course, with the students already working through math problems on the first day. A second teacher was quietly working with one of the students.
This is a program that Elkhart ISD developed ahead of the curve. Students that need extra help in certain subjects or have certain learning disabilities are not separated but encouraged to be ‘part of the team’ while receiving the extra help they need. This prevents them from feeling isolated, but they are able to learn at their own pace.
EISD Superintendent Dr. Lamont Smith said the teaching methods must be varied to match the different needs of different students.
“We have identified kids that may struggle in certain areas or on state assessments. You have to have a plan in order to address their needs,” Dr. Smith said. “Some students this summer didn’t do as well as they wanted, so they take ownership of that. We take ownership in how we address that. We have other children that learn faster, or do better in certain areas. We want to keep them engaged and performing at a higher level. It’s not just remediation, it’s about enrichment too. It’s about giving each child what they need to perform.”
The high school offers a program where high school students who qualify can take dual credit university courses at the school’s expense. Smith sees this as a way to give more advanced students the challenges they crave while helping parents too.
“It’s at the expense of the district. We don’t want our kids and our parents to worry about how they can send their kids to college. ‘We can’t afford it, we can’t pay for it.’ We can reduce some of that potential debt for them. If our kids can perform well enough on their tests and qualify for college courses – we’ll pay for it.”
As the younger ones got some Vitamin D and went to play on the grass near the school, their laughs and chatter signaled a new school year was indeed underway. With the highs much lower than the triple digits we faced most of the summer – they couldn’t have picked a better day for it.
Greg Ritchie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org