Donning their favorite clothes and backpacks full of new pens and notebooks with corners still perfectly crisp, some 2,350 students will begin a new school year this week at the Island's seven public schools. Before the first bell, they will shut off their iPods, put their cell phones on silent and turn their full attention to their new teachers - and old friends, perhaps unseen since summer began.
The first day for freshmen at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School is tomorrow, and all other students start on Thursday.
"It's hard to believe it's going to be 2010 when they leave," regional high school principal Margaret (Peg) Regan said of this year's freshmen. The class will also be the 50th to graduate from the regional high school. "That will definitely be something we'll be planning toward in the next few years," she said.
Free of the transportation turmoil that marked the beginning of the last school year, this year opens with clear objectives and enthusiasm. At the regional high school, a record number of people attended meet-the-coaches night, Mrs. Regan said.
"I think there's a real excitement this year about the opening of school, without all the issues that could detract from that," said Mrs. Regan, who embarks on her eighth year as principal this fall.
At last count, enrollment Islandwide is on par with last year, ending a five-year trend of significant decreasing student numbers overall. The Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School is at full capacity with 158 registered students and 120 on the waiting list.
Today, at the professional assembly of all school teachers and staff, superintendent of schools Dr. James H. Weiss will discuss his goals for the coming year. Number one: more writing in the curriculum.
"I'm challenging our teachers to provide more writing experiences to the students in all of our schools," Mr. Weiss said. "We want our students to do nonfiction writing every week."
Current research shows a strong connection between writing and critical thinking, he added. And with essay writing now a component of the SAT, writing skills are not only crucial for college preparedness - they are crucial for college admissions.
On Sunday, the New York Times reported that while more than 1,000 students nationwide earned a perfect 1600 SAT score last year, only 238 students got the new perfect score of 2400 this year. Students that wrote their 25-minute essays in the third person scored slightly higher than students who wrote in the first person. Longer essays also scored higher overall.
Mr. Weiss's initiative encourages teachers to incorporate writing in every classroom - not just the usual suspect classes like English and history. At the regional high school, attempts to revamp student writing began last year with a new writing manual, in response to feedback from alumni who felt unprepared for college writing assignments.
Improving school culture is another continuing priority at the regional high school. Last year's seniors started a student-run cultural council and a two-day race culture retreat in response to race-related incidents like fights and graffiti in spring 2005. Another race culture retreat will be held in October.
"We do a senior survey every year to find out what issues the students are concerned about or like in the school, and for the first time this year, students said there were diversity issues in the school," Mrs. Regan said. "And I'm happy about that. They're issues that may have been there before but weren't acknowledged. What we did is bring up the awareness in the school, so instead of being a hidden problem, it's out there and being talked about."
Race is not the most common basis for student discrimination at the school, however, Mrs. Regan said.
"Probably the biggest discrimination I see is kids discriminating against each other based on their size and weight," Mrs. Regan said. "Physical appearance is huge." This type of discrimination usually lessens by junior and senior years. At that point, "kids are much more open to who the person is," Mrs. Regan noted.
Director of guidance Michael McCarthy and school social worker Amy Lilavois are also introducing a peer assistance program at the regional high school this fall called Natural Helpers, which will formally train a number of students to better support others.
Another of the superintendent's goals is geared toward preventing student culture problems in middle school and high school before they start. A program called Responsive Classroom will be introduced in the five elementary schools. The program includes morning meetings of the students and teachers to encourage community-building and social skills.
"Our hope is that if we have all of our youngsters go through this program, in middle school and high school they will have better patterns of behavior," Mr. Weiss said.
The regional high school will see stricter consequences for tardiness and absence this year. Four unexcused tardies in a quarter will result in a Saturday detention, and four unexcused absences in a quarter will yield a grade of 59 in every class.
Two new elective classes will also be introduced at the high school: philosophy and psychology. The culinary arts department will expand with the hiring of a new part-time teacher, Antonio Saccoccia, the owner of The Grill on Main - although there is still a waiting list for the class. The television production class may produce a news show for the first time this year. The elective has grown from seven to 34 students in the past two years, with teacher Kate Murray at the helm. "She probably would have 50 [students] if we had the room," Mrs. Regan said.
The charter school is also planning some changes in the high school grades.
"We want to look at some models that will get students more out in the community and go out for more internships," charter school director Robert Moore said. "We're looking at students' passions and how we can enhance their interest areas."
The charter school is also considering a high school-level study abroad program, since the school has a relationship with an art school in Florence.
Edgartown School principal Dr. G. Paul Dulac is particularly excited about the coming school year - his first full year as principal. Mr. Dulac took over for principal Edward Jerome last winter, and was officially instated as the new principal in the spring. A superintendent for most of his career, this is the first time Dr. Dulac has been a principal since the 1970s.
"This is exciting and fun stuff," Mr. Dulac said. "I'm involved directly with students and parents."
Although the early start of the school day will be an adjustment for most students and teachers, it will be a bit harder for West Tisbury School principal Michael Halt, who was still jet lagged yesterday after returning from Japan on Sunday.
Mr. Halt, who is 42, has been in the Marine Corps Reserve for 12 years, a commitment that usually involves one weekend per month and two weeks per summer. But this has been the busiest year yet, Mr. Halt said. This summer, he spent two weeks in both Mississippi and Japan, for a total of a month away.
"One of my jobs is to help with the training and evaluation of the Seabees [Construction Battalions]," Mr. Halt said. "I'm in charge of helping make sure troops who are Navy Seabees going to Iraq are good to go."
It's little more than luck that brings Mr. Halt back to the Island in time for the start of the school year, and he is delighted.
"I'm definitely excited," Mr. Halt said. "We're looking forward to a great year."