Among teachers, administrators and students at Worthington Elementary School's first day on Tuesday, perhaps the person most excited to be there was Interim Superintendent Michael Martirano.
Martirano bounded from one classroom to the next, hugging and talking with nearly every teacher and student he came across.
"I didn't sleep much last night," Martirano said. "I love the first day, and [I'm] more excited than in years."
Martirano stopped to talk about reading intervention strategies with the school's reading specialists, and sat "like pretzels" with Siobhan Saunderson's first grade class. The visit was his third of five that morning, accompanied by County Executive Allan Kittleman and Board of Education Chairwoman Cindy Vaillancourt.
"The kids relate to him," Vaillancourt said. "He exudes confidence, he's the real deal."
Over the past two weeks, Martirano made 12 presentations to staff groups throughout the county in an effort to speak to every educator in the school system. He said the most important point he aimed to make to educators was to "lead with our hearts," and put the needs of students first.
"We can never forget that our children are children," Martirano said. "Kids need to know we care about them, just like teachers need to know I care about them."
The superintendent's visit capped off a morning of excitement for parents, teachers and students, who headed back to school this year after Labor Day.
Worthington Elementary principal Kelli Jenkins said the change in the school calendar has been "wonderful" for her staff, giving them extra time for professional development before the start of the school year. While Jenkins said some parents were anxious to get their kids back to school, the later start helped students get into more of a "rhythm" uninterrupted by the long Labor Day weekend like in past years.
Students poured off of school buses in front of the building just after 9 a.m., hugging the school's wildcat mascot, waving to one another and shouting "I don't need you!" to parents in the background.
Second-grader Olivia Lloyd stood between her parents as she waited to enter the school. A transfer student from Jeffers Hill Elementary in Columbia, Olivia said she was excited, but a little bit nervous, to make new friends at Worthington. She smiled as she said she was most excited for art class.
"You get to make a lot of stuff," Olivia said.
Some parents, like Ruchita Bagul, waited to meet their children at school after having put them on the bus earlier that morning. Bagul's son, Aarav, rode the bus to his first day of kindergarten, and so she was meeting him at school to make sure it went alright. Despite the new routine, Bagul said Aarav wasn't nervous for the first day.
Aarav is among the majority of kids who bus to Worthington; almost 80 percent of students ride the bus, according to Jenkins. Due to the high number, the school has implemented a "tagging" system this year to mark on each student's backpack how they should get home each day, whether it's riding a bus or being picked up by a parent.
Jenkins said much of the first day is spent simply making sure every student knows how they will get home, to help avoid confusion when the final bell rings, even if that means making calls to parents to clarify their child's plans.
"It's so important to make sure kids aren't concerned about the end of the day," she said.
The busy morning wrapped up with an art project for Martirano and Kittleman, who made handprints for the school's handprint quilt project. As he made his way out of the building, Martirano continued to stop and greet students and teachers, sharing his infectious enthusiasm about the upcoming year.
Stopping in one third-grade class, Martirano asked students what were the most important rules for the year. Students responded with "have fun" and "always raise your hand." In a moment that seemed to underscore the tone of the new leader's style, Martirano added his own: "Be kind."
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