School Daze: the first day - or week - can be a challenge

School Daze: the first day - or week - can be a challenge

It’s officially September and we’ve all survived the transition back to school. Not without a few challenges.

Like remembering when school actually starts.

Several eager freshmen were among the first students at Central High School on Aug. 20. Trouble was, they were about an hour early.

Blog PhotoThe school has a late start on Wednesdays, at 8:50 a.m. instead of 8:05, to allow for staff meetings. Aug. 20 happened to be a Wednesday. (I didn’t put those facts together until my son was halfway to school; he just turned around and came back home, happy for another hour of freedom.)

Not only did some students arrive before 8 a.m. on the first day; some showed up bright and early again last Wednesday. It takes time.

Principal Joe Williams and other staff members stood outside with students on the first day, to help pass the time.

“It wasn’t really hot. They just kind of hung out,” Williams said.

And there was entertainment. The marching band’s drum line was supposed to practice anyway, so they gave an impromptu performance in front of the gym.

At least those students got there on the right day.

Urbana High School Principal Matthew Stark, who formerly taught in Indiana, was always puzzled by kids who showed up after Labor Day. Sometimes they’d just moved in from other states where school started later in the fall.

But not always.

“There’d been a yellow bus pass by their house for like a week and a half,” he said. “OK, um, did you notice that there was nobody to play with?”

It even happened in high school on occasion.

“They’d come in with their families, saying, ‘We’d like to register for school.’ Did you just move here? ‘No.’ Were you out of the country? ‘No.’ Really?”

There are lots of first-day stories. Or maybe we should call them first-week stories. The effects of the summer hangover (on students and parents) tend to linger.

Like the Urbana mom who, over the first three days this year, came back to the high school at least twice a day to drop off something her child forgot — lunch, band instrument, you name it.

“Careful, I’m going to enroll you and give you a schedule,” Stark told her. “You’ve been here more than a couple of my students.”

Speaking of schedules, navigating a much larger school can be a challenge for high school freshmen, Williams said.

“We don’t have a good system of numbering on our classrooms,” he said. Room 100 is the gym, for instance. Not everyone knows that, even though it’s a logical place for P.E.

Do students wind up in the wrong rooms? “Nobody tells me those things,” Williams said.

For Urbana Middle School Principal Scott Woods, the Friday before school starts, known as “transition day” for sixth-graders, is often the most interesting. During his opening address, he told the students their parents were not allowed to come into the building with them on the first day of school.

“And they cheered,” he said. “Afterwards a girl brought her mom up to me because her mom didn’t believe her.”

There are always students who line up at the wrong door, or a seventh-grader who somehow winds up with all the sixth-graders, or sixth-graders who didn’t get a locker and carry their 50-pound backpacks around all day rather than asking about it “because they don’t want to get noticed,” Woods said.

“We always really work hard to make those things not happen,” he said.

And principals do their part to make the first day fun. Stark thinks of it like Christmas morning. Really. Same hard-to-sleep feeling the night before, everything “fresh and new and exciting.”

“On the first day everybody has an A, everybody has perfect attendance (except those latecomers, of course). Most kids haven’t gotten into any kind of trouble yet,” he said.

OK, maybe one or two, but “it’s the same magic that surrounds the holiday season.”

Not sure students would agree. But Stark tries to spread the spirit year-round, creating a “fun committee,” rolling out a red carpet for freshmen at orientation, greeting students at the door on “Tiger Fridays” with the Urbana mascot (generating countless selfies).

He’s even agreed to be duct-taped to a wall for a fundraiser, though they’re still negotiating the price.

Academics are serious, Stark said, but “school should be fun.”


A few other first-day school stories:

— When Central’s Williams was dean of students at Jefferson Middle School, the computer scheduling system malfunctioned and every student’s schedule was wrong. He and several other staff members pulled an all-nighter before the first day to fix them.

— A year or two ago, as the bell rang and all the students were entering South Side School for the first time, one little girl threw up all over the front steps. “Photo op, for sure,” said Principal Bill Taylor.

— When Bottenfield Elementary School reopened this year after a major renovation, Principal Bill Pritchard learned what students thought of the old days (i.e., last year). He overhead two fifth-graders talking about Bottenfield 2.0: “Wow, this school is way cooler than it used to be.”

— South Side teacher Julie Henry remembers telling her first-graders how to straighten the caddies on their tables that hold the pencils, markers and crayons, joking that she was a “neat freak.” After school, one mom asked her daughter how she liked her teacher, and the girl responded, “My teacher’s a freak.” Then added, “You know, the neat kind.”

— And from art teacher Amy Lozar: “What always strikes me as hilarious the first few days of school is when the kindergartners come into the art room for the first time with delusions of grandeur — “are we gonna paint today?!?!” — as I think to myself, ‘Today I will teach them how to sit on the stools without falling off. Let’s walk before we run.’”


Julie Wurth blogs about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at, (217) 351-5226 or on Twitter @jawurth.


Photo: Urbana High School Principal Matthew Stark, back, poses for a selfie at the high school Friday morning with Assistant Principal Travis Courson, lower left, Dean of Students Steve Waller, right, and Bookkeeper Casey Huls (the tiger). Photo provided


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