Many of those students found a surprise when they pushed the dangling red and gold paper out of the way to find a handshake and light inquiries from Washoe County School District Superintendent Pedro Martinez and WCSD Board of Trustees member, and Sparks High alum, John Mayer. The two executives welcomed back the Railroader faithful and posed challenges to the students about where they would like to attend college and what they plan to study.
“I just love the feeling I have here right now on the first day of school,” Martinez said. “I am feeling a lot of high energy. I know the teachers are a little bit nervous, but this is exactly what I was hoping I would find: a good energy and a good tone.
Martinez said the “energy” inside Sparks High School on Monday was due to newly arrived principal Kevin Carroll, who entered his first day at Sparks High after transitioning from Sparks Middle School this summer. Carroll said he kept busy this summer, managing schedules and hiring six new teachers and a few administrators. He added that the bigger school would be a small adjustment and the energy he brings will be his key to success.
“I go back to last week when we had the teachers back,” Carroll said when asked about the energy he provides, “We did some fun things with them and I got a lot of emails back, saying ‘thank you, we need this energy back.’ I need to be visible and get to know the teachers and being positive is key to the culture of the school.”
Carroll said the “deer-in-the-headlights” look was common among freshman Monday morning, but he said he is anxious to get out in the halls and classrooms, ensuring he can boost the school’s graduation rate.
“The biggest challenge is getting our kids across the stage and that starts with freshman, today on Day 1,” Carroll said. “We are also looking at the sophomores, juniors and seniors that are credit deficient or need to pass those (proficiency) tests, and we want to really dial in on those students to provide interventions as they need.
“We are looking into adding an eighth period to the day, Saturday boot camps and similar things to get our kids to that graduation level. That is going to be our push this year, getting that graduation rate up and get those kids across the stage as a Railroader.”
Down the road at Dilworth STEM Academy, Principal Laura Peterson guided Martinez and Mayer through the halls of seventh- and eighth-grade students and spoke to math and science classes about the importance of achieving a high GPA in middle school.
Peterson said the morning presented the traditional first day of school with seventh graders showing some timidness and eighth graders looking proud to be the “big kids on campus.” She said the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curriculum, which Dilworth has maintained for four years, will be introduced to the seventh graders on Wednesday in a rather exciting manner.
“We really feel that we have some good roots going with our STEM projects,” she said. “Our seventh graders, for example, on Wednesday when they come in, they are going to be met with what we call a ‘gut gallery.’ We have the remains of a cow and some sheep and they start with that in learning about body systems. They absolutely start with getting their hands on the parts in the systems.
“From there they jump to decide the body system to study and they have to research it, and at the end of the quarter, they have to do exhibition of learning where they have to, in their team of four, get up in front of medical professionals, parents, community members and our Board members to present their research and findings. By the time they leave Dilworth STEM Academy they will have done that eight times.”
Peterson said the STEM practice proves important in Dilworth students eventually attending WCSD Signature Academies in high school. In the four years Peterson has been principal at Dilworth, she has made her presence known throughout the school, but she said that job remains important each new year.
“It is definitely important to have that presence in getting to know the new families and new students,” Peterson said. “We started that last week in our back-to-school night and our open house. They (new seventh graders) worry about their lockers. They worry about being late to their classes, so we have to help them in that hierarchy of need and we have to help them through that fear so we can really get them to that important work and learning.
“We want them feeling comfortable and confident in the classroom so they are willing to take risks, express what they know and challenge what they know. That presence for me, and my whole administrative team, being out in the building is absolutely critical.”
Martinez said there was plenty to be excited about this year throughout WCSD, however some challenges still remain with capital improvements projects and boosting graduation rates around the district.
“We have a lot of tough challenges that we are united on so right now we are trying to get more capital funding for our schools,” Martinez said. “Sparks High School is a great example. It is one of our oldest schools and the building looks great but the reality is behind the walls you have systems that need to be replaced. We just recently replaced a lot of the windows because the winter was very harsh on the building.
“We have some challenges but I think we are all excited about the fact that when the community sees the results from graduation, I think they are going to be pleased, and we are going to build on that and make sure that our children are going to college.”
The 2013-14 school calendar is a change from years past. Schools welcoming students back to class in early August is a change from the final week of August, as had been standard operating procedure in recent years. More than 63,000 WCSD students, elementary to high school age, saw their summers concluded Monday with the new start of school.