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As Another Year Begins, Bennet is Ready to Do Whatever It Takes

If the students are on time or early, and the sneakers are white -- it must be the first day of school. Bennet starts a new year with few bumps, as Royal 7 teachers spend time getting to know their students. Included: A description of Bennet's opening day.

Nothing quite looks, sounds, or feels like the first day of school.

By 7:30 a.m. August 26, Bennet's quad is filled with new and returning students, some greeting each other with squeals and hugs, others hanging back and watching. Because the school has a 16 percent mobility rate, there are lots of new faces besides the entering sixth graders.

Students must wait in the courtyard until just before 8, when the morning bell rings, one of only two bells all day. Many go into the cafeteria for breakfast at 7:30 a.m. and then come back out.

A table is set up in the quad, and staff members help students with schedule questions. Even though it is the first day, many students already have bulging backpacks. Community police officers ride bicycles through the campus, alert for any problems.

Education World Goes Back to School

Education World news editor Ellen R. Delisio is spending several days a month this school year with the Royal 7's, a seventh grade team at Bennet Middle School, a grade 6 to 8 school in Manchester, Connecticut. She is observing and participating in students' learning, and talking with staff about their strategies and perspectives on improving student performance. She is a graduate of W. Tresper Clarke Junior-Senior High School in Westbury, N.Y.

Principal Kathleen Ouellette moves around the quad, calling out and joking with kids. "Did you miss me?" is a frequent question for students. "A little bit," one girl responds. "How about a lotta bit?" Ms. Ouellete shoots back. She stops to check schedules and chat with anxious kids. Some hug her. Ms. Ouellette knows many of them.

"See that kid? That is a tough, tough kid," she says, gesturing across the quad.

Fulfilling Bennet's credo, "Whatever it takes," means knowing more about the kids than just their names and test scores. "The kids rely on us," Ms.Ouellette says. "Some come in with younger siblings who have not had breakfast, so we feed them. Food is very important to them."

Administrators, in fact, don't encourage students to leave when school is dismissed at 2:40 p.m., urging them to participate in sports or clubs or play in the quad. When students do leave at the end of the day, Ms. Ouellette and other staff members walk students down Main Street to keep them safe from any loiterers and prevent kids from lingering in front of businesses.

THE ANTICIPATION BUILDS

This morning, though, is all about anticipation.

The glare from the late summer sun reflecting off dozens of pairs of new white sneakers makes the quad shimmer. Even Ms.Ouellette has gleaming new white pumps, which don't keep her from criss-crossing the dusty courtyard.

Not ones to let the temperature affect the biggest fashion display of the year, many youngsters wear new sweatshirts and jerseys, despite the warm weather and the lack of air conditioning in most rooms.

Many of the African-American boys will cover their sneakers with plastic for the first few weeks to keep them from getting creased, Ms. Ouellette says. Looking good is critical for this age group, and that applies not just to themselves and their peers, but to others around them as well.

"Believe me, they check out everything," Ms. Ouellette says. "Not a day goes by when someone does not say, 'You look nice.' Some of the kids say, 'Ms. Ouellette, you're off the rack.' I had no idea what that meant. I had to ask someone. It means you look good."

Ms. Ouellette tells a boy wearing flip flops they must be replaced by sneakers tomorrow. Another boy wearing a black shirt that reads WHY crosses the courtyard three times on route to his destination.

A mother stops Ms.Ouellette in the quad to say how pleased she has been with the school. She had an eighth grader graduate last year and a sixth grader entering this year. "We are very grateful," she says to Ouellette.

When the bell rings, waves of students move to the entrances of the different buildings, humming with anticipation, and Ms.Ouellette and other staff members clear the courtyard within moments.

SAVING PRECIOUS MINUTES

When the morning bell rings, students go to their first-period class, also known as homebase. Bennet does not have homerooms; instead, first period is extended to allow for administrative and "housekeeping" issues. Lockers usually are located in former cloakrooms attached to the homebase classrooms.

"Homeroom adds a transition," Ms. Outellette says. "We want concentrated instruction. This saves us three or four minutes."

In the main office, rows of parents and students still are trying to register or get their schedules sorted out.

The building air is heavy; some classrooms have air conditioners and others fans, but their placement seem to be random.

Maybe because of the humidity, or the mid-week yank from summer vacation, students in most rooms are quiet and subdued. The sixth graders look like they are too afraid to breathe; as if they sucked in their breaths as they entered the school doors, and have not yet found the courage to exhale. The older students' silence seems to have more to do with drowsiness or resignation.

Diversity That Works

The town of Manchester is in the first "ring" of towns outside the city of Hartford that attracts families who have enough money to move out of the city, but still are low-income. Bennet's enrollment area includes a very low-income section and an upper-middle class neighborhood. Few kids are in the middle of the economic spectrum.

Yet, there are few conflicts along ethnic and economic lines. Most of the disputes are among students in their own subgroups, Ms. Ouellette says.

"The challenge is no bigger here than any college," she says of the population mix. "The mission is to learn to get along and contribute positively."

FIRM, FAST

Ms. Ouellette does not take the silence in stride. She marches into classrooms with the same briskness she uses to cross the quad, sometimes repeating a greeting until she gets the level of "good morning" she likes. In one room, she spies a boy wearing a baseball cap, a policy violation.

"Are you going to put it away, or do I have to take it?" she asks. "Am I going to see it?"

"No, you're not," said the boy, scrunching the hat in his lap.

"That's how we do it," Ms. Ouellette says. "Firm, fast, done."

The dress codes are strict. No hats, no dew rags, or other head coverings in the building. No bare midriffs. No droopy pants. "School is a business, and you need to look like it is," she says. Assistant principal Scott Gagnon keeps a collection of belts in his office and does not hesitate to tap a young man with sinking trousers on the shoulder and say, "It looks like you need a belt today."

"Once you take care of all that, they are ready to learn," Ouellette says. "I'm firm, but I love them."

THE ROYAL 7'S

Royal 7 is one of two-and-a-half seventh grade teams at Bennet. (One team is a combination of seventh and eighth graders.) This year Royal 7 has about 90 students. On the first day of school, a lot of seats are empty. Attendance will be slightly lower until after Labor Day, staff members say.

The team has six teachers: team leader and language arts teacher Jenna Brohinsky, language arts teacher Brandon Kienle, science teacher David Sutherland, social studies teacher Gary Tracey, math teacher Taryn Kutniewski, and special education teacher Jack Crockwell, who co-teaches some classes.

The team's motto is The 3 R's for Success: Readiness, Respect, Responsibility. It appears on forms and in classrooms, and team teachers refer to the 3 R's often.

Ms. Brohinsky, who entered teaching through Teach for America, said she is focused on making school positive for her students..

"I had such a horrific middle school experience that I want to make it better for others," she says.

To do that, Royal 7 teachers meet frequently to discuss what they are doing, how their students are doing, and what they as teachers could be doing differently.

Among the Royal 7 team challenges are keeping on top of some of the problems with which students cope, and trying to meet a wide range of ability levels. "You have to be aware of what is going on in kids' lives," Ms. Brohinsky said. "One student's house burned down last year and the family lost everything."

TEACHING TO THE SPECTRUM

Last year, Royal 7 students ran the gamut of abilities and backgrounds.

One boy in Ms. Brohinsky's class had Down's syndrome, an IQ of between 40 and 46, and extensive medical problems, including asthma. He required treatment with a nebulizer several times a day to ease his breathing; an air conditioner also was installed in Ms. Brohinsky's classroom. The student had his own paraprofessional, and part of his education plan involved helping him develop social skills.

Some days he would hide under a table in the classroom to avoid going to art, Ms. Brohinsky said.

While his reading skills improved, it took a lot of Ms. Brohinsky's time and the special education teacher's time.

In the same class, she had a student whose reading skills were so advanced that she was reading The Odyssey on her own.

"It was a very challenging year," Ms. Brohinsky said. "But we have a lot of dedicated teachers."

HELPING EVERYONE BELONG

This is the second year special education students are being included in most classes. Before that, special education students were mainstreamed for social studies, science, and specials and only pulled out for math and decoding.

"We [team members] meet one day a week for planning on inclusion," Ms. Brohinsky says. "In some cases, we have a special education teacher co-teach the class."

Inclusion is one of many issues for which teachers plan. The day before school started this year, teachers met with a parent of a girl on their team who has a skin ailment that requires prompt attention if she is bruised. Another student on the team has diabetes; team members have to be aware of signs or low or high blood sugar.

The first few days of school are spent on team-building exercises and getting to know one another.

On day one, students spend almost half the day in their homebase class, reviewing policies, getting their locker assignments, and getting acquainted. Team teachers meet when students go off to physical education.

"First day problems or concerns?" Ms. Brohinsky asks.

Not too many. Four kids showed up without pens in one class. For homework, the students have been told to get five forms signed. The teachers discuss standardizing the time-out and discipline policies for the whole team. Ms. Brohinsky offers to have signs stating the policies printed up.

On the table for teachers to chew on over the next few weeks is a way to organize the schedule so the same teachers don't always have the same students first and last periods, when attention spans seem to be low.

THE LUNCH JUGGLE

Royal 7 teachers also decide students will be walked to lunch after returning to homebase, dismissed by table, and walked back to homebase so they can go to their lockers and use the bathrooms.

Lunch periods are a juggling act at Bennet. Because the school has two small cafeterias, lunch periods require twice as many faculty members on duty at one time as most schools.

"It just kills your resources," Ms. Ouellette says. "And we don't want kids eating before 11."

The first lunch periods of the year are an event; outside the cafeteria, there are more hugs and squeals. Some youngsters look tentative, while others gather up food and people and look for seats. One girl moves from table to table, making motorcycle noises.

In the lunch line, a boy yells, "We're back!" as students swarm toward trays of food. "Hi, Mom," a kid calls to one lady.

Some actually eat the lunch of rice, chicken nuggets, or a sandwich. Others down Gatorade and chips.

Near the end of the period, teachers push garbage cans around the room, so students can dump their trash.

"These are my little people," a cashier says of some of the returnees. "By eighth grade, they will be bigger than I am.

Keeping On Top of the Royal 7's

At least once a day, Royal 7 teachers meet to discuss students and coordinate lessons, and meet at least twice a week for "housekeeping": discussing discipline issues or holding parent conferences.

Students are heterogeneously grouped for social studies, science, and specials, and homogenously grouped for language arts and mathematics. Students spend 90 minutes a day working on reading and language arts skills. The average Royal 7 class size has 19 students.

MEETING AND GREETING

In the afternoon, students follow a compacted version of their schedules, having just enough time in each class to meet their teachers and review procedures.

Kenny, a new Royal 7, brings a visitor back to homebase after lunch. He is quiet, limping slightly from what he says is a football injury. Kenny says he understands the visitor is a writer, and he likes to write stories. He says he wrote some articles last year in class.

The first class after stopping off at homebase is Mr. Sutherlands's science class. Students stop to peer at one of the three aquariums as they come into the room, or eye the skeleton in the back. They fill out registration forms, and list what they discovered this summer and what interests they have. Students will be using the scientific method a lot this year, Mr. Sutherlands says, and he plans to start the Royal 7 Scientist Wall of Fame.

Mr. Kienle asks his new language arts students to tell him their names and what makes them unique. Mr. Crockwell says he has webbed feet. But the class will have to take his word on that.

A former television reporter who traveled around the world, and spent a lot of time writing and getting his facts right, Mr.Kienle tells his class they will be doing a lot of writing, and he wants to start a broadcast news club.

Entering geography class, students are greeted by a sign on the board from Mr. Tracey saying, "Come in, find a place to sit. Smile."

Clocks on the wall show the time in Manchester, Cairo, Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo, to get students thinking internationally. "Geography," Mr. Sutherland says, "is a science. So this year social studies is a science. But at the same time, I get to teach you a little bit of history about the world. We will look at maps from everywhere."

Math with Mrs. Kutniewski is last for the day. She talks about math journals and her approach to homework. "I won't give you a ditto with 25 problems on it," she says. "If you can do two, you can do 25."

"Teachers always have to be nice at the beginning of the year," one boy notes.

After a quick trip back to homebase, students head for buses or hit the streets, under Ms. Ouellette's watchful eye. She urges students to stay in crosswalks, and not to linger in front of local businesses. Sixth graders seem to have regained their voices as they trudge home.

"Tell me about getting lost," Ms. Ouellette asks one youngster.

Ms.Ouellette looks down Main Street, assessing a group of students congregating near a hot dog stand. She is afraid they are harassing the vendor. A quick call on her walkie-talkie to the campus police officer quells her fears. "They are just buying hot dogs," he reports.

"It was a great first day," she says later with satisfaction, as small figures disappear down Main Street.

"How was your day?" Ms. Ouellette asks another boy.

"Good," he says brightly. "How was yours?"