Five-year-old Kaitlin Gardner couldn’t wait to start first grade.
“She was ready. She was up. She woke me up,” her mother Salathia Singleton said Wednesday morning as she walked Kaitlin to Jennifer Kippert’s classroom at Blandford Elementary for her first day of the school year.
Sadie Bennett was also excited, to begin kindergarten. Sadie “was doing fine until she saw me cry — then she started to tear up,” said her mom, Bobbi Jo Bennett.
The start of school was understandably emotional for Bennett and her husband Chap. Sadie was their third child to start school, joining fifth-grader Ellie and third-grader Chapman at Blandford Elementary.
“It was bittersweet. I didn’t know whether to do cartwheels or to cry,” Bobbi Jo Bennett said.
There were a lot of those moments Wednesday, as 10,763 students in Effingham County’s 13 public schools began the 2012-13 academic year. The head count was nearly the same as the 10,760 students on last year’s first day of school.
The start of school was also a new beginning for Blandford’s principal. Harriett Snooks is in her first year as BES principal after 26 years at Springfield Elementary.
“I am not sure that I slept very much last night — I was just as excited as the students about the first day of school,” Snooks said. “The first day was perfect. I loved watching parents and grandparents taking all of the first-day pictures. I met so many families and I look forward to meeting even more.”
South Effingham Elementary and Middle also have new principals this year. Former Effingham County Middle assistant principal April Hodges was tabbed to succeed the retired Pete Iott at SEMS, while veteran South Effingham Elementary assistant principal Susan Hartzog was promoted to replace longtime SEES principal Cheryl Christain.
“As I walked through the halls of SEES on the first day of school, I was struck by how very mature all of our students are. From the very young to the older, they are so bright-eyed and anxious to learn,” Hartzog said.
Though Aug. 1 might seem like an early start to the school year, Superintendent Randy Shearouse said it follows a model several school districts have adopted. This year’s Aug. 1-May 23 calendar, chosen among three options in a vote by teachers and parents, allows for a number of longer breaks throughout the school year, Shearouse said. For example, students will have a week-long fall holiday in October and a week off for Thanksgiving, as opposed to possibly one day off in October and three for Thanksgiving.
Shearouse hopes the frequent breaks will have a positive impact on attendance, since students will be well-rested and faculty and staff will have more flexibility to schedule doctor’s appointments and other obligations. He added that student disciplinary referrals tend to decrease in the days following a break.
“It’s a calendar that we feel is going to be more productive for us in terms of student attendance, which we are graded on (by state accountability standards),” Shearouse said. “And, of course, as teachers miss more time, that also costs us more money in providing substitutes.”
The bottom line, Shearouse said, is that this year Effingham County schools will still have a 180-day calendar – which used to be standard practice before school districts began making budget cuts through staff layoffs, furlough days and class day reductions.
“I think there are only 20 systems in the state that have 180 school days for students because of budget reductions, so we’re fortunate that we do have 180 days of school for our students,” he said.