First Day in the Life 2016

Rebeca Barajas, left, chats over breakfast before school with Kailah Siggers and Sebastian Sanchez

Editor’s note: This year, a quartet of School News Network reporters fanned out across Kent ISD and paired with a single person experiencing his or her first day. Below is a glimpse inside that exciting, nerve-wracking annual school ritual.

Grand Rapids Public Schools

In the first hour of her first day back at City High/Middle School, senior Rebeca Barajas calmly filled in her planner with math assignments and test days. Across the desk, her friend Natalie Cruz fretted, “I already feel like I’m behind.”

Rebeca gets a welcome-back hug in history class from her friend Isabel Maternowski

“You can do this,” Rebeca warmly reassured her. “You’ve been here since freshman year. Why would you worry?”

Rebeca doesn’t seem worried as she begins her final year at nationally recognized City High of Grand Rapids Public Schools. Neatly taking down notes on data types from math teacher Erin Burke, she looked ahead to finishing her K-12 journey and beginning a new one, toward college and her goal of becoming a doctor.

“I know this is my last first day, so I’m pretty pumped for senior year,” Rebeca said in the muggy hallway shortly before 7:30 a.m. “I’m excitedto graduate and move on to college.”

But it wasn’t all academics on this high-mercury morning at high-achieving City High. She began it chatting with friends over breakfast in the cafeteria, and talked eagerly of planning Homecoming and Spirit Week. “I just want to make some nice memories with the whole class,” she said.

In math, Rebeca reviewed descriptive statistics and groaned over a next-day homework quiz. In history, she identified a photo from the Vietnam War. Five more classes that day, and a year of studies, tests, yearbook, soccer, awaited her.

“The summer did go by very quickly,” she admitted. “But I feel like I am ready for this.”

Caledonia Public Schools

Duncan Lake Middle School eighth-grade math teacher Daryl Bronkema puts students at ease on the first day with his deadpan sense of humor and personal anecdotes before introducing variables.

Daryl Bronkema welcomes students to Algebra 1
Daryl Bronkema welcomes students to Algebra 1

Thirty students who entered Bronkema’s Algebra 1 classroom for the first time were assured there was no need for stress. “This is a high school class. You don’t need to fret about that. Students do very well in here,” he said.

Bronkema, who has taught math in Caledonia for 22 years, explained classroom expectations while weaving in mention of his six children, five who have been eighth graders; the classroom squirrel, Little Fella, who often peeks in his window; and his array of highlighter color options. He wears the markers in a belt around his waist.

Students didn’t escape the first day without a quiz, though it contained no algebra.

Question 2 was :“Two years ago, Mr. Bronkema was voted:

  1. oldest teacher
  2. tallest teacher
  3. funniest teacher
  4. most affluent teacher
  5. quietest teacher

The answer: C, funniest teacher.

“I was feeling really great about that until some students came up to me and said, ‘Mr. Bronkema, we read that wrong, we thought it said funniest looking teacher,’ ” he said.

All joking aside, Bronkema stressed the importance of being a leader who serves others and of following one’s true passion.

Bronkema also uses goggles to make a point. He insists they filter out negativity so he can see the good things students are doing. “The positives will gobble up the negatives,” he said.

Cedar Springs Public Schools

Sue Spahr chats with a student named Joe
Sue Spahr chats with a student named Joe

Middle School Principal Sue Spahr started the year with an early morning treat for her staff. “They’re my students,” she said.

After 14 years teaching, seven years in the district office, three as principal at Cedar Trails Elementary and now seven at the middle school, Spahr said she has enjoyed the consistency of her time in the district – it means few problems.

In her view, the building has become a “well-oiled machine” in its 10 years of operation. “I don’t mind when things run quite smoothly,” she said.

Along with teachers and volunteers, Spahr made rounds of the seventh-grade hallways to help students learn to master their locker combinations and get to class quickly. Directing them to the right room can help lessen their uncertainty, she said, as well as the anxiety that comes from not knowing what to expect.

“I try to support the social-emotional health of the students and set expectations,” she said. “Before they learn, they have to know they’re safe.”

While making her rounds, Spahr poked her headinside classrooms and made brief eye contact with each teacher to make sure things were going smoothly.

Later she met with parents to clarify school policies so they know the details of plans for their children’s safety, she said. Then it was the eighth-graders’ turn, where she talked with those involved in student-led support systems for the district’s “be nice” anti-bullying policies.

“Support is available,” she told the students. “Let people be who they are. Don’t let (bullying) divide us.”

With a range of family situations, Spahr said Cedar Springs is a snapshot of what many public schools are like, including the challenges middle-schoolers face.

“We really are the center point,” she said. “We’re right in the middle and we have it all.”

Lowell Area Schools

German exchange student Ricco Sobbe, left, chooses an Algebra book with help from host brother Nathan VandeWert

Like most students at a new school, Ricco Sobbe was a little nerved up about the impression he will make on his classmates and teachers at Lowell High School. The German exchange student had a bit of a head start understanding how an American school works, thanks to his host brother, Nathan VandeWert. The fast friends who are the same age — though Nathan points out he’s five months older — will play on the school’s soccer team together this year.

“This school is much bigger than in Germany,” Ricco said. “In Germany it’s very high, like four floors. Here, it’s flat and spread out. And at home we don’t have all the lockers in the hallways, just in one or two rooms, and only for those who pay for it.”

With an appropriate amount of good-natured teenage ribbing, Nathan helped Ricco learn how to work the combination lock on his very own (free) locker, choose an Algebra book (“Algebra II looks better,” he said, setting aside the Algebra I book. “I hear your math is not as hard as German.”), fill out new student paperwork and navigate the hallways.

Said Ricco of attending school in the U.S: “I think it’s a great experience, to stay one year in another school in another country than yours, because of all the impressions you get and all the new people you meet. Most of the movies played in Germany are American movies. … I wanted to get my own impression, how the school life in the U.S. is going and if the life here is like in the movies.”

Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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