Spiritual Royal had been eagerly awaiting the first day of school for awhile.
Finally, she could start kindergarten at Sedgefield Elementary School. Reading new books, making new friends and learning new things were all activities she wanted to do.
“I feel happy,” Spiritual, 5, shyly said, as she played in a box filled with rice and plastic shapes.
Her parents were equally as excited, shedding no tears as they parted with their daughter. Elizabeth Royal said she was at first thrown off by her classroom, which is made up of work stations and multiple seating options instead of rows of desks.
Spiritual’s teacher, Stephanie Jones, reassured her that the new approach to classroom configurations will work for her daughter.
“She said she tried it last year, and it worked out really good,” Elizabeth Royal said. “So I was like, ‘OK, if it’s a way to incorporate learning in a more relaxed environment, then that’s awesome.’ ”
Jones and hundreds of other teachers across the Peninsula area put into motion new lesson plans and ways of teaching as thousands of students returned to buildings for the first day of school.
In Hampton, the latest experiment involves every incoming high school freshman. They’ve been placed in Freshman Academies, which are smaller communities of students that are each grouped around the same set of teachers.
Each freshman will take a new course called “Success 101,” which will focus on career exploration and planning. By the end of this year, every student will pick a career path in which to study during high school in one of 15 Academies of Hampton.
Mary Kelley piloted one of the Success 101 classes at Bethel High School last year. She left a long career teaching biology to move to a subject she said she wished she had in high school.
The walls of her classroom trailer have been brightly painted and decorated to reflect the themes and goals of the academy. Behind her desk is a mural: “A dream is merely a blueprint to an unfinished assignment. Build a legacy worth following!”
“This weekend and on my drive in today, I was reflecting, like, wow, I gave up biology to teach a class that I am really passionate about. … I’m excited to get into their heads and see how they work,” she said. “It’s going to be good.”
Bethel was one of 32 schools and 34 overall sites that Superintendent Jeffery Smith visited throughout the day, along with John Caggiano, deputy superintendent for curriculum, instruction and assessment, and School Board member Joe Kilgore. By the end of his eight-hour trek, Smith had clocked in 24,693 steps, according to his phone.
The only real hiccup reported throughout the division was a 35-minute evacuation at Tyler Elementary School, thanks to a “smoking biscuit in the microwave” setting off the fire alarm, spokeswoman Diana Gulotta said.
“People were calm but really excited about the first day,” she said.
York County School Division administrators had an early start to the first day of school, with some taking the bus to schools in the York zone. Division spokeswoman Katherine Goff said staff paid a visit to a school at the elementary, middle and high school levels. The visits were documented on the division’s Twitter account, which Goff said was used to create a little excitement for the first day.
Students at Yorktown Elementary School returned to a building that was upgraded this summer. Over the weekend, division staff and parent volunteers did some last-minute yardwork and fixing up of the school, and some work is still being completed this week.
Two schools were under a modified lockdown Tuesday morning because of a domestic disturbance at Mount Vernon Elementary School. When a school is under modified lockdown, the entrance and exit are controlled, but instruction continues in the classrooms.
Goff said school staff called the Sheriff’s Office around 9:30 a.m., and deputies were at the school until about 11 a.m. Because of the law enforcement presence, Tabb Middle School was put under modified lockdown as well. Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Shelley Ward said the dispute involved parents.
Goff said some buses did arrive late but nothing unusual for the first day of school, especially since the division changed most of its bus routes this summer.
“The first week is where we iron out those changes,” Goff said.
Isle of Wight County Schools spokeswoman Lynn Briggs said things across the county’s schools were quiet, other than the usual transportation-related hiccups.
Wednesday could bring some further transportation challenges, as students will be bused between high schools to take career and technical education courses that the division is now offering in-house.
Williamsburg-James City County Schools’ biggest issue was also buses. The division is short 22 drivers, according to a news release issued Monday.
“We did have some delays this morning,” said spokeswoman Betsy Overkamp-Smith. “By our third tier of buses, we were running around 20 minutes late. Everyone with a bus license was on the road today. We added stops to some routes, shifted others around.”
Laurel Lane Elementary School assistant principal Deanna Nelson said she usually spends the first morning making sure kids get on and off the bus safely.
“You try to pay attention to how they look getting off the bus,” she said. “There are a lot of smiling faces but also some sad ones. They pass a lot of people on their way to class, so the goal is to have them feeling a bit better once they get there.”
Poquoson Superintendent Jennifer Parish said the first day of school was business as usual and a great start. She said one of the biggest changes for the school year would be a new project-based learning initiative at the high school.
Parish said teachers were trained over the summer in project-based learning, which has students work for a long period of time to investigate and address a problem or challenge. The training and some of the materials for the new initiative were funded by a grant from the department of defense.
In Mathews County, the first day back was smooth sailing, according to Superintendent Nancy Welch. She said some kindergarten students and parents looked a little nervous at Lee-Jackson Elementary School, but they all were helped to the right place and walked away with no complaints. Lee-Jackson is finalizing its HVAC renovations, so some of the school is without air-conditioning, but Welch said the air should be going by the end of the week.
In a letter to parents, Welch pointed out other work done over the summer, such as a completely redesigned science lab at Mathews High School and a resurfaced track at Lee-Jackson and Thomas Hunter Middle School.
Gloucester Superintendent Walter Clemons said Tuesday was one of the smoothest openings he’s experienced, with all schools and departments reporting a good first day. With students coming back to school, Clemons said the masterplan study for a Gloucester High School is still in mind. He said it’s exciting to think of the enhancements and modernization that could be coming to the building, which was originally built in the 1970s.
Staff writers Josh Reyes and Wesley Wright contributed to this report. Hammond can be reached by phone at 757-247-4951 or on Twitter @byjanehammond.