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Veronica Wright, of South Kingstown, takes a photo of her daughter Rowen while waiting for the bus Tuesday morning during the first day of school.

Rowen Wright, 9, of South Kingstown, said she is “excited, but scared,” from challenges and change ahead - as they also will come for many others - as the tradition of a new school year renews itself.

“I’m going to a bigger school and the gym is much larger than the other school,”  said the fourth-grader about her switch from South Kingstown’s shuttered Wakefield Elementary School to Peace Dale Elementary School this past Tuesday.

“This is going to be a good year and I’m looking forward to the ‘Battle of the Books’ and that will be fun,” she said about the contest where librarians test fourth-grade students’ memories on selected details from various books.

This is one of many events students are looking forward to happening as schools opened around the state Tuesday. Buses rolled, teachers shook off the summer vacation, and principals and superintendents cleared desks for myriad new issues heading to their way.

Buildings had thorough cleanings, kitchens opened for meals and the many support functions — whether nurses, psychologists and those assisting with special needs — were ready to help start the 2022-23 school year.

For Rowen, and her sister, Lilly Manfredi, 16, a junior at South Kingstown High School, the challenge of the upcoming year is about getting some books to read and obtaining a certificate.

“I like to read and I like graphic novels,” Rowen said, referring to action-packed books like the “Best Friends” series she wants to dig into during the year.

Listening nearby, Lilly said she’s looking forward to the junior prom. “I’m also excited about seeing my friends and hopefully getting my CNA license by the end of the year,” a milestone she wants on a path toward becoming a nurse, she added.

Their mother Veronica Wright, a South Kingstown native, is a fifth grade teacher at East Greenwich’s Hanaford Elementary School. She knows the drill ahead for those who make the schools run every day.

 

Tasks Ahead

The tasks ahead are a little more daunting for school administrators and teachers.

Tyrone C. Howard is a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles and president-elect of the American Educational Research Association.

He pointed out recently that almost every educator would agree that there is lots of work to be done as they deal with the effects of COVID.  He noted recently in an Education Week commentary that there are five pressing issues facing teachers and administrators as the new school year begins.

They are: Students are still struggling academically and emotionally, adults are still struggling, too, enrollment is dropping, politics remain in our schools, and schools need more joy.

These thoughts and others are not lost on local teachers and administrators.

“Being a teacher in 2022 means way more than planning lessons and grading papers. Being a teacher can mean being the only trusted adult in a kid’s life, the only one who tells them they’re proud of them, the only one that respects their identity,” said Kevin Dalton, 24, of North Kingstown High School,  an English Language Arts teacher.

Kristin Hayes-Leite, 58, a teacher for 21 years and at Narragansett High School. She is a social studies and career and technical education instructor who helps students learn skills needed to be successful in the workforce and her focus is on students who are interested in careers in education.

She said, “To be a teacher in 2022 means that you have hope for the future and faith in our students’ abilities to meet the complex challenges we face as a society.”

Felicie Carroll, just finished 34 years of teaching at Matunuck Elementary School in South Kingstown, with the last 11 years as a reading specialist.

To be a teacher today, she said, means dealing with the many varying emotional issues that are so much more present in the classroom and dealt with in school than in years prior.

“In addition to all of the anxiety that we read about in children, the kids I see the struggle to read, and they know it. This adds even more anxiety for them,” she said.

Serena Mason, who has spent more than 26 years in the classroom, is a social studies and history teacher at North Kingstown High School.

She said, “It means you have strength, passion for your craft, endurance, and a strong desire to enhance the lives of the youth of the town by sharing your academic knowledge with them in order to help them walk through any doors they want to post-high school.”

“You’ve been battle-tested and survived teaching during the last two years with COVID and the myriad of challenges it has placed in your path and the path of your students,” Mason said.

“You continue to pay it forward to the next generation. As Winston Churchill once said, ‘You make a living by what you do, but you make a life by what you give.’” she added.

 

Student Struggles

In interviews, these teachers and Howard in his Education Week assessment pointed to student struggles are the forefront in the year ahead.

Students are still struggling academically and emotionally, he said. “By now, it’s well documented that the pandemic has contributed to notable academic lag for many students,” he added.

Hayes-Leite in Narragansett agreed.

“We are still dealing with the effects of distance learning and supporting students who struggle emotionally, behaviorally, and academically,” she said.

“When I have a class full of students in front of me, I see the very real needs of these young people and it is a challenge to meet all of those needs all at the same time,” Hayes-Leite added.

Adults are still struggling, too, Howard also pointed out. North Kingstown’s Dalton noted, “It means showing up to sporting events or plays outside of your contract hours to make sure that your students have someone cheering them on in the audience.”

It is known that enrollment is dropping. In South Kingstown, it figured into the closing of a beloved elementary school.

Politics also remain central in schools, not only over funding and school closures, but with national issues that concern banned books, critical race theory, the overturning of the Roe v. Wade decision, vaccinations and masks, LGBTQ+ rights, and a divisive political climate, Howard and other local educators said.

Schools need more joy, he pointed out. None of the local teachers disagreed.

Howard said, “Schools need to be places where students laugh, learn, explore, talk, think, create, imagine, dream, and feel good about themselves and others.”

Mark Prince, South Kingstown schools superintendent, accented that point earlier this year when focusing on the joy a student feels from a teacher who spreads it.

“As adults, far removed from our last day of elementary school, we can still name our favorite elementary teacher…Years from now, when they think of her or him, a smile will come across their faces,” he said.

Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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