New school year bows on Long Island

Students in kindergarten through fourth grade begin their first day at the New Visions Museum School of Exploration and Discovery in Freeport. Videojournalist: Jim Staubitser (Sept. 4, 2012)

More than 400,000 students are returning this week to Long Island schools that feature new classroom lessons, new job evaluations, new lunch menus and new financial challenges for administrators and teachers alike.

Fifty-one school districts are opening Wednesday in Nassau and Suffolk counties, and four more Thursday. Students returned to class in 62 districts Tuesday; seven school systems began instruction last week.

For teachers, this is the first year that many will teach lessons based on Common Core curricula promoted by the National Governors Association and adopted by New York and 47 other states. The academic standards encourage more rigorous studies in English and math.

Simultaneously, teachers are getting their first state job ratings, based on student test scores, that ultimately could play a part in whether they remain employed. While the state Department of Education has said the great majority of ratings so far have been positive, many teachers said they are feeling the pressure.

"We're all a little nervous about it," said Greta Villanueva, a third-grade teacher at New Visions Museum School of Exploration and Discovery, a magnet school in the Freeport district. "It's all new to us. There's a lot going on with the teacher evaluations and everything like that, and doing the Common Core standards is a lot to do all at once."

Common Core lessons emphasize readings from original documents. So Freeport students, like others across the Island, will spend more time reading and discussing such works as President Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter From Birmingham Jail," among others.

Plenty of challengesIn many districts, a combination of falling enrollment and tight budgets is prompting trims of teachers and other staff.

Half Hollow Hills, for example, has cut 67 positions for teachers and other employees. Massapequa has shed 63 jobs, Longwood 37, Brentwood 34, Commack 26 and Middle Country 24. District officials insist, however, that they're bringing back as many of those staffers as they can as vacancies open through retirements and leaves.

"Everybody is doing more with less," said Michael R. Lonergan, 57, Longwood's new superintendent. He officially took over the 9,000-student district in central Brookhaven Town during the weekend, after 11 years as an assistant superintendent there.

Lonergan added that reductions in teaching staff have pushed up average class sizes, from 23 or 24 students per class to 25 or 26 students. Nonetheless, he voiced optimism over Longwood's future, saying that returning classes to smaller sizes is a high priority.

"You know, it's tough for everybody right now," said Lauren Sherlock, 28, who teaches kindergarten at Longwood's Coram Elementary School, which also opened Tuesday. "I think as a district we'll pull together."

New year, new suppliesSherlock, like her colleagues, is preparing new Common Core lessons in math. Every Longwood student in grades K-6 has been issued new math workbooks and even workbooks at the kindergarten level are 290 pages thick.

At most schools, first-day logistics were among teachers' priorities.

In Miller Place, 28 students with spotless shoes and fresh haircuts filed into Evan Curran's fourth-grade classroom at Laddie A. Decker Sound Beach Elementary School, ready to unload their bulging backpacks.

They sat in near-silence as they unpacked boxes of tissues, fistfuls of unsharpened pencils, one-subject notebooks and slender, shiny new folders -- the colors preselected based on subject matter -- along with crayons, markers, glue sticks, highlighters and headphones.

"You guys are doing a great job," their teacher said. "I know this is not the most exciting thing, but I like to get it over with all in one day."

When the sorting was nearly over, and math and social studies books distributed, Curran passed out small yellow raffle tickets as a way to introduce students to his incentive system.

"As I see you doing something good, I will walk by and throw a ticket on your desk," he said.

The tickets, he said, entitle students to shop every other Friday at what he calls the "classroom store" where they can "buy" toys and supplies from a small storage bin near the door.Change is coming to school cafeterias as well as classrooms. New federal guidelines kicking in this year increase the availability of fruits, vegetables and whole grains on school menus.

At Coram Elementary, for example, student lunch trays provided applesauce, carrots, peaches, baked beans and salad, along with baked popcorn chicken. Milk is low-fat or fat-free, and sandwiches are made with whole-wheat bread.Along with nutrition, many school lunchrooms across the Island provided opportunities for renewed friendships. At the New Visions School in Freeport, third-graders sat at rectangular and round tables, swapping stories of what they'd done during the summer. When the bell rang and the children at each table prepared to exit, some students hugged each other.

"I miss Shelby already," one girl said, sighing, as she trotted to her classroom line

With Jo Napolitano

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