Kyla Lanchak, a first-year teacher at Forest Hill Elementary School, is filled with excitement about the school year ahead and looking to share the joys of learning with her fourth-grade class.
Lanchak held up her Harford County Public Schools identification badge, smiling broadly.
“This badge makes it official!” she exclaimed.
Lanchak added: “I’m just excited to go on that adventure with [the students] and see those ah-ha moments when they understand something, or celebrate their successes.”
Lanchak , 21, said she inherited a love for learning from her mother, an accountant who home-schooled her through part of elementary school and all of middle school. She attended high school at Harford Christian School in Dublin, earning dual credits through Harford Community College and completed high school in December 2014.
“I’ve always loved learning, and I just want to be able to share that with my students and show them that learning isn’t just in a book — learning is life,” she said.
Harford County Public Schools students in kindergarten through 12th grade start the 2018-19 school year on Tuesday. The school system serves about 37,800 elementary, middle and high school students in 54 schools.
Forest Hill Elementary, like other schools in Harford County, lost its teacher mentors as part of the most recent budget approval process, according to Principal Marc Hamilton, who is starting his fourth year leading Forest Hill Elementary and his 15th year with Harford County Public Schools. Eighty-one positions, many related to classroom support, were cut systemwide to help balance the $461.7 million operating budget for fiscal 2019, adopted by the Board of Education in June.
That means faculty, staff and administrators will all pitch in to help the four new Forest Hill teachers — including Lanchak and Katlyn Daisey, a speech and language pathologist — get acclimated.
There will be “bonding” activities and dinner outings so new and veteran faculty members can build trust and veteran teachers can help new teachers through the tough spots, Hamilton said.
“We’re well aware of the pulse and cycle of new teachers, so we look to support them as best we can,” Hamilton said.
On Tuesday, teachers were decorating their classrooms to reflect the school-wide theme for the upcoming year: the school embodies a “village” of community and support for students and staff.
Lanchak and her three fourth-grade faculty colleagues put Maryland-themed decorations in their classrooms, since there will be social studies units related to Maryland.
Fostering ‘a-ha moments’
Lanchak, a Jarrettsville resident, graduated in the spring from Towson University, where she studied elementary and special education. She completed her degree program at the TUNE — Towson University in Northeastern Maryland — building on Harford Community College’s Bel Air campus. She completed her first two years of college at HCC and her final years in the Towson building.
“It was nice to be able to stay in the same county and have all my internships here,” Lanchak said.
Her room is next door to Erin McMaster, a former teacher mentor who is returning to the classroom to teach fourth grade for the upcoming school year after her mentoring position was cut.
McMaster said she was a teacher mentor for three years at several Harford schools. Prior, she spent 10 years teaching fourth grade at Forest Hill and is now back in Room 210, her previous classroom.
Hamilton, the principal, said Lanchak was positioned next to McMaster’s classroom, so she could step out and seek the veteran teacher’s help, if needed.
McMaster said she and her fourth-grade colleagues Kori Yekstat and Tina Kropp, have worked together to help Lanchak get settled.
“ … so [Lanchak] doesn’t have to lean on one person,” McMaster said.
Yekstat is starting her ninth year at Forest Hill and 11th year with HCPS. She is also a member of Forest Hill’s school improvement team. School improvement teams include representatives of the school and community who work to improve student achievement, according to the HCPS website.
Yekstat said she loves working with new teachers.
“I think they come in fresh with new ideas, and they help us to re-evaluate and reshape our beliefs on teaching,” she said.
Yekstat said new teachers can bring news of new developments in the teaching profession. McMaster called it “authentic professional development.”
“Teaching is very much a team [effort],” said Kropp, who has spent her 15-year career at Forest Hill. “It takes a village — we all work together, sharing ideas, sharing feedback.”
Daisey has three years of field experience in speech pathology working in clinics with children and the elderly. This year is her first working at a school.
“I’m really excited to bring my knowledge from an outpatient setting to a school setting,” said Daisey, 27, who recently moved to Abingdon from Timonium with her husband.
Daisey grew up in Bel Air and graduated from Bel Air High School in 2008. She attended Stevenson University in Baltimore County, earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology and then a master’s in speech and language pathology from Loyola University Maryland at the school’s Graduate Center in Columbia.
She said she became interested in speech and language pathology while shadowing a Baltimore County Public Schools school psychologist as an undergraduate. Daisey said she saw a pathologist working, and the psychologist encouraged her to talk with the pathologist.
After earning her master’s, she spent two years in skilled nursing facilities with elderly patients, such as people recovering from strokes.
She also worked for a year with children ages 2 to 13 in an outpatient setting with Trellis in Sparks. Trellis provides an array of services, including clinical, educational and diagnostic, to children with autism and other related disorders, as well as with their families, according to the Trellis website.
Daisey said she wants to continue working with children because “you’re working on growing and developing language.” She said she might keep working with senior citizens on the weekends or during summers.
She will work with Forest Hill students as well as preschool age children from the surrounding area. She said her first day of the school year will consist of Individual Education Plan meetings, when she will meet with students, their families, teachers, staff and administrators to help craft IEPs for students with special needs.
Daisey said she will work with students on a group and individual basis in her room, general education classrooms and STRIVE classrooms.
She said it is rewarding to see a person improve his or her communication skills.
“It is opening a new door, and I think it’s related to quality of life — being able to give them those means to communicate more,” she said.
Safety in schools paramount
Lanchak and other educators also face the sobering task of planning and preparing themselves for the worst in today’s era of shootings in schools and other public places.
“It’s very sad,” Lanchak said.
Donoven Brooks, HCPS’ chief of safety and security, said in a recent interview with The Aegis that the school system takes its security protocols seriously and is working with the county government and local law enforcement to keep schools safe and ensure personnel are prepared to respond to an incident.
Lanchak said administrators at Forest Hill Elementary have been working with staff on safety and security protocols, dispersing written emergency procedures/instructions, answering questions and encouraging teachers to keep those sheets in folders for substitute teachers, “making sure that if I wasn’t here that my kids are still safe.”
“I feel very fortunate to be in the school that I am, where my administration is so conscious of [safety and security],” Lanchak said.
Hamilton also said that there are monitors that allow administrators and office staff to view security camera feeds of the exterior of the school.
Forest Hill also has a secure entrance, and visitors must be buzzed in. Hamilton said the two school office secretaries have worked at the school for years, and “they know everybody in this community.”
“If they don’t recognize you, they ask what you’re doing at the door,” Hamilton said.
Forest Hill has 514 students, according to the HCPS website. There are 77 staff total, 45 of of them teachers, including special educators, Hamilton said.
The staff includes 13 paraprofessionals who support the STRIVE (Structured Teaching with Reinforcement in a Visual Environment) program to assist students with autism, according to Hamilton.
“We’re really proud of our STRIVE program,” he said. “We have great teachers, we have great staff and we set the bar high for them.”