A woman in a red jacket welcomed Hamilton Elementary third-grader Calin McKeever to his first day of school Thursday morning.
“How are you today?” she asked, as a confusing array of cameras held by a gaggle of people gathered outside Calin’s school.
Calin didn’t realize he was being greeted by the state’s top education official: Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. She asked Calin if he knew where he was going; he looked around for something familiar, spotting what he was looking for.
“I see one of my friends right behind you,” Calin told Elia. A former teacher, administrator and frequent classroom visitor, Elia stepped aside for the students to reconnect.
Before making his way to the playground, Calin paused to answer a reporter's question about his crisp, clean sneakers.
“This is all new,” he said of the outfit, adding that he was excited for school.
When asked if he was excited for anything in particular, he replied, “everything, because I like school."
After visiting schools in East Ramapo Central School District on Wednesday, Elia dropped by Hamilton – the only upstate school she is visiting on its first day of classes – to learn more about what the school and district are doing to teach students social and emotional skills, in addition to academic fundamentals. Referred to in educator jargon as “social-emotional,” the approach teaches students how to recognize their own emotions and handle them in a way that allows them to focus on academic work.
On a visit that last multiple hours, Elia visited a special education classroom of about a dozen fourth- and fifth-grade students during a “mindful moment." Such time is used to help students control themselves and remain calm when they get upset about something.
Leading her students through breathing exercises, teacher Paula Gaul told students that if they ever feel stressed or angry to think back to how they feel when they breathe deeply and feel calm and centered.
“Our mouths are closed. Our ears are listening, and we are respectful of the people around us,” she said. “We are going to try and get rid of some of those angry thoughts.”
Standing on Hamilton’s playground as students, parents and teachers sorted themselves into classes – the predictable chaos of the first day of school unfolding on a warm Schenectady morning – Elia called the city's school district a “leader in the state” in providing students the type of emotional support she and other educators say are key to helping students -- especially those affected by poverty and trauma.
“This is the first day. A lot of these kids were here last year; they are getting hugs from the people they know,” Elia said. “It’s an environment where they are supportive of the kids, and those are the kinds of things we are looking for.”
When asked about Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring’s argument that the district is still far short of receiving the funding it needs to provide students with a “sound, basic education,” Elia cited a new requirement for districts to report how they allocate funds across each school within the district.
“There are districts that would indicate that they do not have enough resources to really cover the needs of many of their students; those districts need to look carefully” at how their resource are divided among the district’s schools, she said.
Elia said some districts “absolutely” still need more funding to meet students' needs, and the “Board of Regents have been focused on doing that -- where we have the ability to do it.”