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Harford teachers getting ready for their 'Christmas Morning,' aka the first day of school

Churchville Elementary teachers new and veteran praise close-knit atmosphere of school

Churchville Elementary School teachers who are getting ready for the first day of school are like parents getting ready for Christmas Morning, the school's principal says.

"Our building is ready for kids," Principal Audrey Vohs explained. "It's kind of like the night before Christmas – you're doing those last-minute touches, but you're ready."

Workers could be seen finishing a new roof on the kindergarten building Monday afternoon. A new chiller for the air conditioning system was installed over the summer, as well as new roofs for the main building and kindergarten building, according to Vohs.

Across the county, more than 2,900 Harford County Public Schools teachers are busy getting ready this week as the clock ticks toward Thursday and the start of the 2016-2017 school year.

At Churchville Elementary, the teachers, both first year and veterans, were inside putting the finishing touches on their classrooms, among them Ashley Gereli and Dana Christopher, who are just beginning their teaching careers.

Gereli is a special education teacher who will assist students and classroom teachers at all grade levels. Christopher is a kindergarten teacher.

Both earned their bachelor's degrees from Towson University in May, completing their courses at the Towson University, Northeastern Maryland building on the west campus of Harford Community College.

The TUNE building opened in the fall of 2014. It is designed to accommodate students who have completed their associate's degrees at HCC and can then finish their upper-level courses across Thomas Run Road. Graduates earn a Towson University degree without leaving Harford County.

"It's so satisfying to see them succeed and progress through the school year," Gereli, who studied elementary education and special education, said of working with students with special needs. "[You're] truly being an advocate for them and making sure they get exactly what they need to succeed."

A 2012 graduate of C. Milton Wright High School who lives in the Churchville area, Gereli is happy to be working at Churchville Elementary.

"I think it's a fantastic community, a really close-knit family feel," she said, praising the "team mentality" among the staff.

"Anybody and everybody I've talked to has been absolutely fantastic," she said. "Everyone's been so quick to reassure [me] that we'll get throughout it together. There's always someone to lean on, and I couldn't be more appreciative."

Christopher, the new kindergarten teacher, also praised the support she has received so far from the school and the community.

"The community as a whole has been so welcoming and so positive about having me in their school," she said.

Christopher graduated from North Harford High School in 2012 and majored in early childhood education and special education at Towson.

She has also sought support and advice from her kindergarten teacher, Fran Geraghty, whom she had for kindergarten at Hickory Elementary School many years ago.

Christopher transferred to Forest Hill Elementary School for first grade after school district lines were redrawn in the area, and she noted Geraghty went to Forest Hill with her. They remain in touch today, and Christopher said she hopes to change students' lives "the way she [Geraghty] changed mine."

She was working in her classroom Monday in the school's separate kindergarten building – the main building is for grades one through five.

Christopher wants her classroom to be a place where her students feel safe "and somewhere they want to come to everyday and grow as children and learners."

"The kindergarten experience sets the tone for the rest of their lives in regards to education," she said.

Thirty of the 53 faculty and staff members at Churchville Elementary are classroom teachers, and five of those classroom teachers are new to the school this year, according to Vohs, the principal.

The faculty and staff will serve about 378 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, she said.

"They miss their kids, so they're ready to see them again," Vohs said of the veteran faculty. "They've missed them all summer."

The Harford school system has 2,978 teaching positions, 20 of which were vacant as of Monday, according to Manager of Communications Jillian Lader. She said the school system has hired 277 certificated teachers to replace those who retired or left the system for other reasons after the last school year ended in June.

The Harford system has about 5,000 employees overall, who serve more than 37,000 students.

Two veteran faculty members, who have spent their whole teaching careers at Churchville, also praised the close-knit atmosphere among the staff and students' parents, who are key community supporters.

"Once you're a Charger, you're always a Charger," said art teacher Marie Hoppenstein, who has been teaching for seven years.

Melinda Rost, a fifth-grade teacher who is starting her 11th year at Churchville, said it is a "really nice, small school."

"It's really community oriented, family oriented; it's just a wonderful place to work," she said. "All the kids pretty much know each other, it's great."

Rost encouraged new teachers to "enjoy the first day and the first week of school; that's really a fun time with the kids."

"Just try and enjoy it and really get to know the students," she said.

Hoppenstein said she has been going over her lesson plans and making sure she has the proper materials.

She teaches all grades, so she has been able to watch the incoming fifth graders grow and improve their art skills since kindergarten. She refers to students as "my kids."

"It's really hard when that fifth grade group graduates – you feel like you're losing a little part of you, but then you get new babies in the fall," Hoppenstein said.

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