DAYTONA BEACH — It was about an hour before the first students started streaming through the hallways at Palm Terrace Elementary School, but staff member Jeanette Tellis already was stationed outside a classroom, eagerly awaiting the first bell of a new school year.
“Happy Monday!” she called out to colleagues as they passed motivational posters declaring that “Learning Is An Adventure!” and “This Is Where Memories Are Made!”
“First day of school!” she proclaimed. “I’m so happy!”
Tellis, a paraprofessional assigned to assist teachers in second- and third-grade ESE classes, reflected the optimism that powered Monday’s opening day of classes at Palm Terrace, among the Volusia County schools that welcomed the district’s 63,000 students back to the classroom.
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After COVID-related disruptions to educational routines over the past two years, the prospect of the traditional opening-day hustle, bustle, confusion, joy and nerves was a welcome milestone, said Carrie Crkvenac, principal on assignment at Palm Terrace.
“We couldn’t be more thrilled about where we are today,” Crkvenac said. “That the kids are coming back and we’re ready to start a new school year.”
At Palm Terrace, that outlook is fueled by the school’s academic progress, earning a C grade on the Florida Department of Education's district grading scale for 2022, after receiving Ds for the past three years, Crkvenac said.
“Because of the efforts of this school family, we pulled that grade up,” she said. “It shows the dedication of the whole community. Likewise, the staff should be really commended for their hard work.”
Parents, students, teachers eager for new year
On Monday, teachers and students all appeared ready to start working hard again.
As students filed off school buses, occasionally with quiet trepidation, they were greeted with exuberant high fives from Elizabeth Albert, president of Volusia United Educators teachers’ union and a former math coach at Palm Terrace. She was joined by other teachers and administrators.
“Good morning! Glad you’re here!” Albert told the students. “Thanks for being at school today.”
She wasn’t the only special guest on opening day.
New Volusia County Schools Superintendent Carmen Balgobin visited the Palm Terrace cafeteria to meet about 225 students noshing on a school breakfast menu that included diced pears, fruit juice, sausage croissants, yogurt, cardboard cartons of milk and plastic bowls of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal.
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For Balgobin, it was part of a first-day tour of district schools and facilities that included a pre-dawn visit with bus drivers at the Daytona Beach transportation hub, as well as stops at Atlantic High School and Creekside Middle School in Port Orange, Deltona High School, the newly renovated Deltona Middle School and DeBary Elementary School.
“What are you guys looking forward to this year?” she asked one table of pint-sized diners.
For fourth-grader Jimmy Griffin, 9, the immediate priority was digging into a serving of Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
“That’s me and Frosted Flakes,” Balgobin said, offering a shout-out to her favorite breakfast cereal. “I could eat that every day.”
After breakfast, Jimmy was most looking forward to his classes in art and physical education, he said.
“I really like drawing,” he said.
For Balgobin, priorities are safety, engaging students
On Monday, Balgobin emphasized her main priorities for the upcoming year, a laser-like focus on providing a safe, healthy environment and engaging students in high levels of learning daily.
With many pandemic restrictions now in the past, Balgobin is hopeful that the school year will represent a return to normalcy after the disruptions at the height of the pandemic in 2020.
By mid-March of that year, the spread of COVID-19 had reached the pandemic level and Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran ordered all schools to close temporarily.
By the end of March 2020, Balgobin, then a deputy superintendent of teaching, leading and learning, was spearheading an unprecedented effort to restart schools online, including providing 5,000 iPads to elementary school students.
“Compared with the past 2-1/2 years, this has to be a more normal year, so students can focus on learning and teachers can focus on teaching,” she said, “so everyone can focus really on what it’s all about.”
Nearby, Albert, the teachers’ union leader, said that the new superintendent’s presence will help in achieving that focus.
“We have a fresh set of eyes looking at things, and I’m very encouraged about this year,” she said. “We believe that we have a focus on improving the culture, that we have systems in place to prioritize the people in the district.
“This year should hopefully bring consistency and hopefully a return somewhat to a sense of normalcy in educating our children,” Albert said.
Outside the school’s front entrance, dozens of parents and youngsters waited patiently to check in at the front desk.
Chacolya Bailey, 28, was waiting with two of her eight children, VPK students Alaysha and Caliah Weary, who were playing quietly on a nearby bench.
“They’re excited and ready to go, and I am, too,” said Bailey, owner of a beauty product business. “I’m extremely happy school’s back in. Summer is awesome, but school is better.”
Laden with backpacks and plastic bags packed with markers, tissues, sanitary wipes and other supplies, both Clinton Garrison, 32, and his kindergarten daughter Cianna also were both ready for the first day.
“She’s excited to go to school,” Garrison said, “and I’m excited to have her here.”
This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: Volusia County students, teachers return to school for new year