For the kindergartners at Hamilton Elementary School, the first day of school was just like any other day.
Most of them attended last week’s orientation, a four-day program offered for the first time, but only at Hamilton. By the time it was officially the first day of school, students already knew their teacher and their classroom. They knew how to line up and how to sit on the rug. The only thing that was new was breakfast.
So they calmly lined up, saying goodbye to parents. Only one child held onto her father — but even she let go long before it was time to walk inside.
“I think it really helped ease the separation anxiety,” Principal Michelle VanDerlinden said of the orientation program. “They knew where to go. And no crying, no prying of arms.”
Some years, teachers said, several children would cry inconsolably. This time, no one shed so much as a tear.
“I’m fine,” said 5-year-old Jaden Jones, who added she was scared on her first day of orientation, but on that day, parents got to attend with their students — and the children weren’t expected to learn anything.
Orientation helped the parents let go, too.
“It was a really good orientation for nervous parents,” VanDerlinden said.
In past years, some of the anxious hand-holding was due to a parent who could not quite say goodbye. This year, they were ready.
“I’m losing my baby,” said Stephanie Jones softly as Jaden confidently walked away to her spot in line. “We used to have mommy and daughter time — this was our only mommy-daughter time.”
Now, with her last child in school, she was trying to think positively.
“I’m going to go to the library, have some quiet time and take a nice quiet shower,” she said.
Fellow parent Georgianna Lajuett also said goodbye to her youngest child, Brandon LaFountain, 5, who was eager to get in line. He was up at 6:30 a.m., urging her to take him to school right away, she said.
It was harder for her.
“They grow up too quick,” she said.
During last week’s orientation, students and their parents got to tour the building with former students, as well as seeing the classroom — usually sacrosanct on the first day of school, lest the presence of a parent add to the crying.
Teachers started the year running, with evaluations in hand for every student who attended orientation. They know how much each child knows about their numbers, letters and colors. All of them have been evaluated by a reading specialist, and by Wednesday, teachers had crunched the data and started individualized lesson plans.
They set up stations throughout the classroom, and directed each child to the few that challenge them, VanDerlinden said.
“To do that, you really need to know where your students are,” she said.
They will also give out individualized homework this year, VanDerlinden added, and plan to tell each parent what to work on at home.
All this is happening much sooner than normal. Usually, they don’t have full evaluations until the end of September, teachers said. The reading specialists are spread throughout the school, so it takes longer to have each kindergartner evaluated.
There are a few kindergartners left to study. About two-thirds came to some portion of orientation week, VanDerlinden said. Some who did not attend were evaluated in Head Start or other pre-kindergarten programs, but a few are blank slates to the teachers.
Still, integrating those few was far easier than managing 26 new faces Wednesday. Teacher Ashleigh Caster swiftly organized a buddy system, using the experienced kindergartners to settle the others.
“Ariana, you were here last week, go show Christian where to sit,” she said. “Edwin, show your friends who were not here last week how you sit on the rug.”
Edwin Deleon, 5, had no trouble showing his friends around. His mother said orientation worked wonders.
“It got them to feel they’re in a fun environment, so they don’t start the first day crying,” Renee Fetter said.
She added that Edwin cried and cried last year when he started preschool. She was relieved when he confidently walked into school Wednesday.
“This year, he’s a pro,” she said. “I’m a little nervous for the all day, but he’ll be fine.”