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The First Days of School: Building Community, Expectations, Connections

Greenwood Elementary School teacher Sarah Hodges sits in one of her student’s desks. Her room is clean, organized and it smells like the new air freshener she just opened.

I ask her how long it takes for everything to be messed up."About an hour," she says.Inside the neatly packed folders on the students' desks are important papers they need to take home to their families. This includes the district's new Code of Conduct, which lays out the behavioral expectations for students.  But school leaders are developing their own sense of expectations at the school level that help drive student-teacher relationships as well as help develop school-wide communities.Classes begin Tuesday for Jefferson County Public Schools students and while it may take kids (and their parents) a while to get used to being back in class, many teachers say they don’t plan to jump directly into academics and curriculum during the first few days of the semester. Instead, they’ll begin to establish relationships and rules that will set the tone for the rest of the year.Hodges and her fellow teacher, Becka Meffert, who sits next to her say it's important to develop the soft skills that often get left out of the education conversation. This is especially important for the younger kids, Hodges says, many who are entering a large social scene for the first time.So, teachers will go over things that may sound simple, like how to line up for lunch.“That’s pretty big for a five year old, to make sure they get everything, ketchup and straws and little things like that that you don’t think about," she says.The idea of going over behavioral expectations isn’t new.When I was in school, teachers would review  appropriate ways  of walking down the hall, or remind me that I should raise my hand before speaking. But having the same game plan for all teachers and staff is new for many schools.Then you add summer vacation, and everyone needs to recalibrate, says Meffert.“I think part of it is, you leave here in May or June and they’ve become the class that you’ve wanted them to become. And then it’s getting your mind back to, That’s not how they’re going to come back in August," she says.Plus, it’s not just a one-time deal. Every several weeks, Meffert says she reviews the behavioral expectations with her students.“I think a lot of times principals know if you don’t have that community, if you don’t have those routines and procedures then you’re kind of putting out small fires all year long. So I think most principals try to emphasize that up front," she says.As WFPL reported earlier this year, getting teachers and staff all on the same page is difficult, but can make a huge difference. It also helps with the feeling of a school's community.Both Hodges and Meffert say Greenwood Elementary has a strong school community and that’s something that’s also echoed at Westport Middle School in the East End.Because Westport was deemed persistently low-achieving by the state a couple years ago, there was a lot of teacher turnover, says principal Staci Eddleman.That was a major shake up for the school.At the time teachers had their own expectations for how students should behave, says Raymond Yaksic, a language arts and social studies teacher at Westport. Now that’s changed, he says, but it took a while because it’s not something he remembered being taught in teacher preparation courses.“For the first two weeks, they prepared us to get into the core instruction but not set up relationships and community and things like that, which has really been the focal point of our school and our team," he says. Yaksic says last year Westport Middle School implemented a social curriculum plan that aims to help students become more responsible. And teachers at the school have just started looking at Positive Behavioral Intervention Systems, or PBIS. This gives schools a common set of expectations that students are to follow and many schools have been able to reduce suspensions and referrals.This is true in Westport Middle School, Yaksic says, and school data would suggest the same. Suspensions were cut from 321 to 206 (the comparison misses 12 school days from the 2012-2013 school year).But he also says since he started working at the school four years ago, he believes it's begun to shed its image as a low-achieving school.Since Yaksic’s first year at Westport enrollment has grown nearly 25 percent.“Our first year here, sixth grade orientation, we would fill one section of the bleachers. Now we have to open the entire gym basically to accommodate the people who want to come see us and that’s a wonderful thing," he says.Yaksic says it's true that no matter what you learn in college, when you step in front of a class, you feel like you’re on your own. But he says building a sense community may help teachers feel like they’re part of a larger family.

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