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Before the First Bell Rings

In last week before Sept. 3, principals ready new teachers, students, construction before first bell rings.

AUG. 28 - With less than a week to go, teachers and administrators were happy with preparations for the impending return of students to Arlington’s schools next Tuesday.

That onrush starts with a slow trickle this week, as sixth- and ninth-grade students begin their transitions to middle and high schools. They were joined by student athletes, musicians and student governments, heading back to school for a head start on extracurricular activities.

New teachers have been on the job for a little over a week, and all county instructors made their way back to elementary, middle and high schools this week.

It all made a full week for Arlington’s principals, juggling the return of their veteran staff, the orientation of new staff, the beginning of student activities and, at eight county schools, the beginnings and ends of construction projects.

At Jefferson Middle School, renovation of the gym finished just in time for the beginning of school, and just in time for workers to begin refurbishing the school’s auditorium. At Williamsburg Middle School, construction continues on the school’s library. At Washington-Lee High School, teachers will begin to plan for a massive renovation of the school, slated to begin in two years.

It can be a nerve-wracking week, especially for a brand new principal. "I’m getting a little nervous," said Doris Jackson, the new principal of Wakefield High School. "It’s going better than I thought."

Jackson takes over this year for Marie Shiels-Djouadi, long-time administrator at the school who retired in June. But Jackson brings 10 years of experience at Wakefield, first as counselor, then as assistant principal. It’s not her new responsibilities that make her nervous, it’s the anticipation.

"I won’t sleep the night before school starts," she said. "I haven’t since kindergarten."

<b>MIDDLE SCHOOL CAN</b> be daunting for new sixth graders, who find themselves thrown from the comfort of one classroom into the whirl of changing classes, running from one wing of the school to another.

In Arlington schools, they have early help getting adjusted to those changes, with orientations starting in the summer, well before they have to make it from class to class, and most will have an extra half-day of school this week.

"All summer, we have a special orientation for the sixth grade," said Kathy Francis, the new principal at Williamsburg. "They meet with a counselor, tour the building, get to know the routines"

This year’s seventh graders also come in this week, to serve as tour guides. "They can say, ‘Don’t worry, I know how it is, I was where you are last year,’" Francis said. "Then on Thursday, we invite them back in for a half-day. I talk to them, they meet the teachers, then go to the cafeteria and have pizza."

The middle school cafeteria proves to be one of the biggest draws for new sixth graders, said Swanson principal Gregg Robertson. The school will also hold an open house for new sixth graders this week, but many of their questions were answered before the end of last school year, he said.

"We have orientations and elementary visits in the spring," he said. "Rising sixth graders come spend the day. They toured, talked to the students and met some teachers, and then ate lunch. That’s always a highlight for them, we always hear that: being able to choose pizza," after coming from elementary school, where most brought their lunches.

At Kenmore, sixth graders have also spent part of their summer vacation getting accustomed to the atmosphere of middle school, learning about the school’s team system for sixth graders.

They have also taken three sessions emphasizing different aspects of the school’s curriculum: makeup classes for students who need them; the school’s arts and technology institute, part of a specialized focus at Kenmore; and Kenmore’s special reading enrichment program.

Students and parents will also be at the school tonight for "dessert night," said principal John Word. "They can figure out which team they’re part of, and teachers will be there to shake hands, say hello to parents," he said.

A parent "coffee" at Gunston Middle School offered similar opportunities to students, and was a surprise hit this year, principal Greg Croghan said. "The kids are invited too, so we actually had water. It was in the library, and we expected between 20 and 25 students and parents, but this year we had about 70."

At H-B Woodlawn, Arlington’s secondary school, the big transition is also for sixth graders, said principal Ray Anderson. The school serves as an alternative to other Arlington middle schools and high schools, drawing students from around the county with a curriculum they have more opportunities to guide from sixth through 12th grades.

That takes some explaining, but students that choose Woodlawn already understand much of how the school works, Anderson said. The big transition is getting students from around the county acquainted with one another.

"They’re coming from 20 different elementary schools, so sometimes there’s only three to seven kids from their school," he said. "They may not know each other very well, let alone all the other kids."

So Woodlawn’s new sixth graders will gather on the lawn this Thursday night for a picnic, getting acquainted before they’re thrown together in classes.

<b>LIKE MOST COUNTY</B> middle schools, Gunston is abuzz with construction workers, working on the school’s cafeteria and one computer lab. But work is just wrapping up, and compared to past years, it seems peaceful, Croghan said.

"We’ve had a number [of construction projects] in the last years" during opening week, he said. "This year, it’s just finishing the detail work. In the cafeteria the dining hall, where the kids sit, is ready. If the kitchen’s not fully functioning, we’ll still be serving meals, and it will be completed by the end of the first week. We’re feeling pretty good about what’s going on."

At Jefferson, principal Sharon Monde said, construction work on the school’s gym came in just under the wire, just in time for the Arlington County Fair at the school. "The phys-ed classes can move right in," she said.

But work is just beginning on Jefferson’s auditorium, which also serves as a community theater. It will displace some school functions, but no classes. "Some of the big meetings and orientations that we would’ve had there, we’ve had to move to other locations," Monde said. "And we will have to use a different model for back to school night."

Word said that the Kenmore community was unfazed by the construction at the school, which will lead up to a massive renovation project starting in late 2003.

"It’s exciting here," he said. "Kenmore continues to experience an increase in enrollment. We’re adding seven new classrooms this year. We’re working to get the trailers ready as we speak."

The staff at Swanson had no construction to deal with this year – that will come next year, with a planned addition to the middle school. But the school faced another challenge preparing for Sept. 3.

"We were the site for the middle school summer program, so we had some 800 students in over the summer," said principal Robertson. "We usually spend that time cleaning rooms, cleaning carpets. But we didn’t have the summer to do that this year. It’s crunchtime."

Once the summer school program ended, custodial staff worked overtime to get the school back in shape. "We got everything done except the office," Robertson said.

<b>THIS WEEK</B> is also the last chance to get new teachers and administrators up to speed, to make them comfortable in their jobs, before students returned.

At Wakefield, new principal Jackson felt secure in her role as next Tuesday approached. But she’d had a decade of on-the-job training, she said, and had spent the end of last school year preparing with Djouadi.

"Dr. Djouadi spent every Friday with me, going over what I would need to do," Jackson said. "She gave me a heads up on what’s coming, what happens next."

Like Jackson, Francis becomes principal at Williamsburg Middle School after serving as the school’s assistant principal. "Having been here for many years before has been a help," she said. "But I’ve also gotten a lot of support from teachers, and the support staff, and from the parents. That made it easier."

At Kenmore, Word was welcoming Daniel Redding, his new assistant principal, to the school two weeks after being appointed to the position, after five years of serving as technology coordinator at Gunston and several elementary schools. "It’s been a whirlwind two weeks," Redding said. "There’s a lot to learn about being on this end" of the administration.

He will spend this year working with incoming sixth graders and new teachers. "We’ll all learn together," he said. "As I learn the process, I’ll tell them what I’ve found out. It seems like a natural thing."

Arlington Public Schools held a county-wide orientation for new teachers last week, and individual schools followed that up this week and last. Their new schools often proved to be pleasant surprises. Phil Hayden, a new social studies teacher at Kenmore, found the school and the Arlington system a real change from his old job in Fairfax. "It’s more personal, more in-depth. The whole week has been that way," he said.

At Washington-Lee, principal Marion Spraggins said she tried to prepare her new teachers for all of their duties.

"I told them we hire the best, and we want to keep them around," she said. "So we offer our support in whatever way possible. I also let them know that parents send us their very best, and we expect them to treat the children accordingly."

It can be an overwhelming charge for new teachers, she said, but not just for new teachers.

"Some come better prepared than veteran teachers."

<b>THOUGH THEIR JOBS</b> officially began this Monday, teachers new and old have been making their way back to schools for several weeks, preparing classrooms for Sept. 3.

"Just in the past week, 85 percent of my staff have been in," Francis said.

"Our parking lot is full," said Jackson at Wakefield. "Nobody can get over how many cars are here. It doesn’t surprise me."

It’s what working in schools are all about, said Swanson’s Robertson. "When you’re here in the summer without the students, it’s not what you signed on for. So we’re looking forward to them coming back, starting fresh."