PENINSULA — The first week back to school is often hectic. New and old students surge into buildings they haven’t had to think about in nearly three months, teachers return from vacation and districts sort out new state and federal requirements.
This year, the first week had the potential to be even more chaotic than usual in the Ocean Beach School District with a new superintendent on board, a host of state and federal requirements to absorb and a renovated high school building still under construction even as classrooms filled with students.
Other schools in the district were also in flux with the launch of a new student-driven program at the Middle School and the sudden appearance of breathing room at the two elementary schools as the Middle School took on sixth grade.
Still, it has all gone much more smoothly than anticipated.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better first day,” said High School Principal Dave Tobin, echoing what other school principals and teachers are saying.
For the last seven years, the middle school and the high school shared space at the middle school’s Hilltop facility while the 1970’s-era high school building stood outdated and, for the most part, empty just down the road. (The Long Beach Peninsula Boys and Girls used the portions of the building for its activities and has been allowed to continue there.)
In February, voters passed a levy that will eventually raise $5.5 million and pay for the renovation of the high school. That renovation work got underway in May and architect Eric Lanciault and contractor Integrity Structures LLC were confident they would hit their Sept. 1 deadline. District Maintenance Manager Jerry Bruner and then-Superintendent Mark Hottowe were less sure and anticipated work would continue on the building into the school year. Now, Bruner estimates work will likely continue through October, though the bulk of it is complete, he said.
On the second day of school, construction workers walked across the high school’s roof, the exterior walls still need to be painted and inside it was clear there was more work to be done. Two classrooms need final electrical work and the east wing of the high school was waiting for new lockers to be installed. Also in the east wing, several walls still needed to be painted.
Hand-written paper signs taped to walls and doors told students which rooms were which, or which direction to take to find the room they needed.
At the Middle School, staff and students didn’t quite seem to know what to do with the extra space. Later in the morning on the second day, classes were in session but the whole school was quiet.
“I could hear a pin drop,” said Principal Marc Simmons. “I never thought a middle school could sound like that.”
To handle the influx of sixth grade students, the middle school brought on five additional teachers, most of whom were already teaching in the district.
Nancy Sprague, formerly at Ocean Park Elementary, now works at the middle school. She carried a map of the school in her pants pocket this first week to keep from getting lost in the sprawling building. Throughout the week, she’d see students from OPE who, rushing towards the familiar face, asked her, “Ms. Sprague! Where do we go?”
She spent most of the first day helping them figure out how to open their lockers. At OPE or Long Beach Elementary, these students would have been the “big” kids. Now, looking up (literally in many cases) at two older grades, they’re the “littles,” explained one sixth grader.
At the elementary schools, this means the fifth graders have had to step up as student leaders, said OPE Principal Cathy Meinhardt. They’re doing things the sixth graders used to do: making announcements, raising the flag.
“They walked in taking these responsibilities over,” Meinhardt said.
Enrollment dropped slightly at OPE — from 230 students last year to 188 students so far this year, though that number could continue to fluctuate. This drop is only partly due to the loss of sixth grade, Meinhardt said. Many students simply moved.
At Long Beach Elementary, current enrollment stands at 274 this year compared to 302 last year.
The Middle School currently has 229 students enrolled and had approximately 138 students last year.
Also this year, the Middle School is experimenting with Pathways, a selection of weekly courses that run the gamut from mountain biking and archery to culinary arts and inventing. The students pick which Pathways they want to participate in. Each Friday, the students attend a morning session and an afternoon session, grades mixing with other grades. Teachers and volunteers run these “classes” but the goal is to engage students whose suggestions will help guide and shape each class.
This first week, most of the time was spent on introductions and brainstorming. It will need to be fine-tuned throughout the school year, said Simmons. He and his teachers hope Pathways will not only make students excited about learning, but will also be a way to bring the community into the school to share different skills with the students.