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First day of school year not old hat at Westowne Elementary

Since opening its doors in 1952, Westowne Elementary School has seen plenty of first days.

But while every first day of school is different, the one common theme for students, teachers, and staff at the school on Harlem Lane has been a feeling of excitement.

Pat Vogel, who is beginning her 18th year as a teacher/administrator in the Baltimore County school system, felt the enthusiasm again when Westowne opened on Monday.

"Parents are excited because it's their time to send their children back to us," said Vogel, Westowne's principal since 2006. "And we're excited because we love having the kids here. It went pretty smoothly this morning."

That was the case in Abby Bozman's first-grade class. As her 21 students sat quietly on a brightly colored carpet in the front of her room, Bozman reviewed some classroom rules and showed a welcome video from new school superintendent Dallas Dance.

"On a scale of 1-10, I'm at about a 13 today," said Bozman, who has been at Westowne since 2004 and is beginning her tenth year of teaching.

"Every year, there is a bit of anxiety because you are meeting a new class and you don't know what your students are capable of," she said. "But each year, they are coming in more prepared, which is exciting because they know how to read and can usually write a sentence, and their math skills are so much better.

"I want to challenge them to the point where they are pushing themselves to learn every day, and I hope that one day they can look back and remember that they had the most fun ever in my class."

While Bozman was just getting to know her new students, the first day was a reintroduction for Josh Willig. After teaching fourth-graders during his first five years at Westowne, Willig moved up to the fifth grade this fall. He was looking forward to seeing many familiar faces on the first day of school.

"Knowing them right away, instead of having to take a while to assess their different interests and abilities, makes me feel that we can have a more productive beginning of the year," he said. "I like being closer to the point where they leave for middle school, because this is a really important time in their lives.

"The big goal is to make them more independent and more responsible, and help them understand the effects that their choices have on their future."

Many of the fifth graders were excited about being the "big kids" at Westowne, especially since they will be at the opposite end of the spectrum in middle school at this time next year.

"It's fun to be in school and learn," said fifth-grader Alyssa Dorsey. "I'm really excited to be here, because I love school. I had all of my school supplies by the second week of school break. "

Josiah Bumbray won't get to the fifth grade for a few years. Accompanied by his father John, he was ready for the first day of second grade.

"It's been exciting to anticipate them going back to school and getting into the routine after a great summer vacation," said John Bumbray. "It takes him about a week to get back into the swing. But he looks forward to going, and can't wait to get in school."

While the oldest son of John and Denise Avara headed off to his first day at Catonsville Middle School on his own, the Westowne parents stood in a crowded hallway with their younger sons.

"The first day of school reminds you how quickly they get older," John Avara said. "But we're reaching a point where our guys know what they're doing."

As the Avaras and other families walked their students to class, Westowne's diversity became apparent.

Vogel is the leader of a school with a mix of nationalities and ethnicities, and sees Westowne's diversity as an asset.

"I think we are superior because of our diversity," Vogel said. "We're a very inclusive school that also has a fairly large special-needs population, so the kids here get to understand what those students are going through."

While the school looks much younger than its 60 years, there are challenges. Westowne can heat up quickly because there is no air conditioning, and Denise Avara is hoping to change that situation.

"This is an amazing school, with a great faculty and principals," said Avara, now in her third year as PTA president. "It's like a family to me. We're just trying to make some capital improvements to the building."

While air conditioning is a goal of the PTA president, Vogel has set the academic priorities for the new school year.

"We want to make sure that students are on grade level in reading and math," Vogel said. "We're also going to move forward with more writing, across the curriculum.

"We're placing a greater emphasis on rigor," she said. "If we can keep students engaged and they can be having fun while learning, we've really hit the nail on the head. It's going to be important for us to be at the top of our game every day, because these kids deserve the best."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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