‘There’s a palpable sense of optimism this year’

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Superintendent of Schools Joseph Kobza greets children stepping off the bus for their first day of school at Fawn Hollow Thursday morning.

MONROE, CT — Families felt excitement over the first day of school Thursday morning, on a day when a number of educators also shared some firsts.

Masuk High School Principal Steve Swensen greeted students as they stepped off the bus and drove to school, before hurrying home to take pictures of his own son, William, who was starting his first day of kindergarten at Stepney Elementary School.

Julia Strong, left, on her first day as Jockey Hollow Middle School’s principal. She is standing with Superintendent Joseph Kobza. Both graduated from Masuk in the Class of 1990.

At Jockey Hollow Middle School, Julia Strong waited for students to arrive for the start of her first year as principal.

“I’m thrilled to have a new kind of first day in the district, where I’ve had so many first days,” Strong said. “Our sixth-graders and I are new to JHMS this year.”

Strong’s history in the district dates back to 1986, when she enrolled as a freshman at Masuk, where her father Dave was a teacher and the school’s legendary girls basketball coach. Her family lived in Watertown.

She was later hired as a teacher at Masuk in 2000, eventually being promoted to assistant principal and she most recently led the Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) program before being hired as Jockey Hollow’s principal.

“I did have a little first day jitters and pulled into the Masuk parking lot like I have for my last 21 years of school,” Strong said with a laugh.

Optimism in the air

Superintendent of Schools Joseph Kobza greeted students at Masuk, before driving to Jockey Hollow and Fawn Hollow Elementary School. He plans to visit Stepney and Monroe elementary schools on Friday.

“There’s a palpable sense of optimism this year. I can feel it in the air,” Kobza said as he  walked across the parking lot to a side entrance of Fawn Hollow. “At Masuk, kids were smiling. It’s just great to see.”

Principal Leigh Metcalf Ances took a photo of a small group of teachers in the hallway. She smiled as Kobza approached. “We are ready,” she said.

A colorful banner inside the hallway by the entrance had a message for the children about to walk through the main entrance: “We missed you.”

On the sidewalk outside, Ances, Kobza, teachers and other school employees appeared jubilant at the first sight of busses rolling into the parking lot. Some children smiled and waved while looking out the windows.

Boys with their hair neatly combed and girls wearing ribbons and braids, all dressed up for their big day, carried backpacks and some brought flowers for their teachers.

Educators said things like, “I missed you!” and “Did you get taller?” while exchanging hi fives, elbow bumps and some hugs.

A great day

“This is a great day,” Ances said after school let out. “The students and staff are always so excited to begin the year — there is so much energy and enthusiasm surrounding the first day and the newness and freshness of it.”

Fawn Hollow Principal Leigh Metcalf Ances greets students on the first day of school Thursday morning.

“We have many new students, and some are coming from as far away as  California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, New York, Texas and Virginia,” she said. “There are just over 660 students at Fawn Hollow for the 2022 year.”

This year, Fawn Hollow has an additional part time physical education teacher and part time music teacher and, because it’s the town’s largest elementary school, Ances said there are more sections and classes.

“Our teachers — and all teachers across the district — are learning a lot about social and emotional learning and the RULER program,” she said. “We want all students to be kind to each other and we want them to have a strong connection to school as well as a sense of belonging.”

Ances said she is impressed with the maintenance and improvements done around the school campus.

“The campus looks wonderful.” she said. “Over the summer, a lot of work was done, and it turned out beautifully. Our expanded sidewalk by the gym and our new sidewalk by the front entrance looks beautiful.”

This year, she said the PTO is going to explore the possibility of having an outdoor learning space on Fawn Hollow’s field. Work is in the early stages.

“Students were smiling and reconnecting with their classmates  — they had a great day,” Ances said of Thursday. “Teachers spent a lot of time doing team building activities and get-to know you activities. We want to form relationships and build partnerships.”

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