Much has changed between the time 54-year-old John W. Stevens graduated from the Edgartown School and yesterday, when he welcomed the students and parents on opening day and introduced himself as their new school principal.
But for the veteran educator, who comes from running large schools in Florida, the scene was familiar enough.
“They’re all exciting. They’re all different, but they’re all the same,” he said of opening days. “I don’t remember my first day of school. I do remember the new shoes and new clothes and the friends I hadn’t seen since June. I can name each one of my teachers that I had.”
For the Edgartown native, who is also an alumnus of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, it was the 32nd opening day of his career and his 16th as a principal.
There were plenty of new shoes and new clothes on display outside the main entrance yesterday, where children — and their parents — greeted those unseen since school’s end and filled up on the muffins and coffee put out by Janna O’Shaughnessy and Shannon Donovan of the parent-teacher organization.
Everyone wanted to meet the new principal. The handshaking began before 8 a.m.
Edgartown police lieutenant Tony Bettencourt had been in uniform, quietly watching over the first-day crowds, but when his wife and two young daughters arrived, he proudly introduced them to the new principal.
A mother escorting her daughter to her first day of third grade didn’t recognize Mr. Stevens’s face, and she frowned and squinted at his name tag. She stopped in her tracks and announced “This is your principal, say hello.” A shy smile and wave were offered in place of a handshake.
By 8:22 a.m., two minutes after the late bell, only parents and very young children were still socializing outside. In the lobby, a cluster of moms and one dad chatted merrily in Portuguese. At 8:23, superintendent James H. Weiss appeared — already his third school visit of the day. Mr. Stevens moved inside for a powwow in the office at 8:30 a.m. and by 8:35, he was off visiting classrooms.
Armed with a folded-up map of the school floor plan, he began making rounds of the more than 20 homeroom classes. The map detailed the room numbers, teacher names, subject or grade-levels taught and the names of teaching assistants. Hand-drawn asterisks marked staff new to the school and stars marked first-year teachers.
“I remember there were 30-plus kids in all my classes. We had a big class,” Mr. Stevens recalled.
Now there are 10 to 15 students per class in Edgartown, and each class is also attended by a teaching assistant — many of whom have college degrees.
“That just creates an optimal learning situation because you can dial into every kid,” he said. “The town is extremely generous and works very well and closely with the school.”
He’s also impressed with the facilities.
“What a beautiful building. It’s one of the best I’ve ever seen,” he said. “Architecturally it’s interesting and it’s been well maintained too. It really is a top-shelf facility — and again, that’s a credit to the town, the fact they invested the money to build it and to maintain it.”
The first students he visited were eighth graders, seated attentively in a circle, while teacher Ms. Cunningham explained when their lockers would be assigned. Mr. Stevens introduced himself and asked if anyone had any questions for him. One student raised his hand.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“Here,” Mr. Stevens replied. Some faces were skeptical. “I went to this school when I was a boy. Actually, it was that school over there,” he said, pointing out the window to the old brick building that served as the Edgartown School until 2003. The skepticism turned to smiles.
The seventh and eighth graders in neighboring classrooms were quiet and didn’t have any questions for the new principal. But the fourth graders were chatty. After Mr. Stevens joined them to recite the pledge of allegiance, one young boy blurted out, “It feels a little weird to be back.”
Another boy raised his hand and Mr. Stevens called on him.
“My mom saw you one day,” he announced.
Another boy raised his hand and was called on.
“I always come in first place in the derby. I already caught 18 bonito in one day. It costs $55 though,” he said.
“Really?” Mr. Stevens asked. “I think it was $5 when I was your age.”
In the next fourth grade classroom, the boys and girls went around in a circle, giving their name and one thing they did over the summer — and then reciting the name and summer activity of each student who spoke before them.
“My name is Joseph and I went to the beach with my cousins a lot,” said one. “My name is Greg and I went to the skate park,” said another.
When the teacher paused the students to let Mr. Stevens introduce himself, a student beat him to the punch.
“That’s Mr. Stevens, the new principal. My mom talks about him a lot,” he said.
Taking a short break on the balcony overlooking the sunny, cathedral-ceilinged lobby, Mr. Stevens went over his plan for the rest of the day. After finishing the classroom rounds, he would spend some time in the office — check on attendance, talk to the treasurer, reply to e-mails and return phone calls from parents. “I like to return calls same day,” he said. Then he would go to the cafeteria while the students ate lunch.
He’s already eaten in the cafeteria twice.
“Oh, it’s outstanding,” he said. “It’s three bucks. It’s the best lunch in town — the best restaurant in town. We feed 300 a day. No reservations required.”
That’s changed from when he was a student.
“We went home for lunch — 12 to 1,” he said. “I remember walking home, eating lunch and walking back.”
The majority of kids walked or rode their bikes home, he recalled. “It’s unheard of now,” he said.
In the coming days, Mr. Stevens’ routine for the rest of the year will set in.
“As the days go on, I’ll be coming in and doing observations of teachers to get a feeling for how the material is taught,” he said. “There are some things that the school needs to work on that will be my focus — math is one of them,” he added.
Below him, a neat, single-file line of kindergartners on a tour of the school was led into the office. Even from above, it was clear the youngsters were calm and free of first-day tears — though it was still early in the day.
“That’s amazing for the first day,” Mr. Stevens smiled.