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Learning Together

Photo by Connor Raborn

DIRECTION -- Independence Leadership Academy Principal Lisa Raiford shows fourth-grader Sergio Segura the way to his first class of the day.

by Connor Raborn reporter@hammondstar.com

Children found their way to homerooms. Supplies were unpacked. Teachers began learning dozens of new names.

Tangipahoa Parish public schools buzzed with the energy of a fresh start Thursday as the new school year and Superintendent Melissa Stilley's first school year in her new job began. Stilley made her rounds from Tickfaw to Kentwood, checking in on teachers and students and hearing much the same report everywhere: so far so good.

Stilley will visit south-end schools in Hammond and Ponchatoula today.

Although the numbers will remain unofficial for these first few weeks, enrollment Thursday stood at 19,617 for the first day of classes, an increase of 496 students parishwide over the same time last year, she said.

The biggest growth appears to be at Ponchatoula High School, where enrollment was up 150 students on opening day. Champ Cooper was a close second with an increase of 118 students over last year's first day. Hammond High Magnet, Hammond Eastside Magnet, and Tucker Elementary rounded out the five schools that saw the most growth in opening day enrollment this year Stilley said.

Lucille Nesom Memorial School was her first stop Thursday. She saw that things got off to the right start by helping run the carpool line drop-offs.

Soon she arrived at Independence Leadership Academy in time to help Joel Jackson unpack his backpack in second grade teacher Kristi Illg's room.

Across the street at Independence High Magnet School, Principal Chasity Collier advised students who had errors on their second hour schedules and looked in on new Head Coach Scott Shaffett's physical education class.

By the time Stilley visited Amite schools, she was satisfied to see a trend of smooth sailing emerging, despite some class scheduling errors and concerns over buses.

"Transportation. That and scheduling. These are typical kinds of things that happen," she said, approaching Amite Westside Middle Magnet School. "It takes a couple days to get the speed bumps worked out."

Buses were her primary worry, due to changes resulting from the modified student plan which changed grade ranges at Greenville Park Leadership Academy, Woodland Park Magnet School, Independence Leadership Academy and Independence Magnet School.

Amite Westside Principal Ashley Walker was proactive in making sure there would be no confusion at the end of the day. She sent a list of morning bus assignments to a staffer to study and check it against afternoon bus numbers.

Despite summer break coming to an end, students were happy to be back.

"It's pretty cool," said Amite Elementary student Rylan Henderson.

He had taken a cruise to Jamaica over the summer, but Thursday he smiled in the cafeteria as he bit into a slice of pizza and talked about his favorite class.

It had been a by-the-books first day for Roseland Montessori fourth-grader and Stilley's grandson, Hyatt Holton.

"I went to class. We went to our seats. We got to pick out our own seats," Holton said. "We got all our stuff, and we set up our binders and stuff."

Recess followed, then a worksheet, then lunch.

Amite Elementary Principal Gary Porter said a few students were sleepy but they should be adjusted by the end of the week. Stilley admitted she too had trouble getting to sleep Wednesday because she was excited about the first day.

"Give it time," Amite Middle School Assistant Principal Lee Miller said, addressing sleepiness. "In four or five days they'll be 'Cat in the Hat mode.'"

The comparison reflected the public schools' theme for the school year, "Oh, the Places We'll Go in Tangipahoa!" Seussian decorations adorned the halls and doors of each school. Roseland Montessori Principal Rhonda Vaccaro presented Stilley with a themed wreath.

It was a theme used at the teacher pep rally at Southeastern Louisiana University Center Tuesday, which united all the parish school teachers under one roof to hype them for the new year. Teachers were still abuzz with inspiration Thursday.

"I think it's the most fired up I've seen Tangipahoa Parish in a long time. Everybody I've talked to is fired up," Shaffett said.

Amite High School Principal Brennan McCurley marked the first day by setting up a Twitter account for the school and posting pictures of students ready for class. As he visited classrooms, he reminded students to follow the account and submit photos for it.

He said he appreciates the school's reputation for having a successful sports program, but he wants to showcase other facets as well.

"Every day I want to put something good up," McCurley said. "I want people to say, 'Amite High is rocking at academics. These teachers are working hard to help these kids.'"

Stilley found many Tangipahoa Parish teachers so passionate about their jobs that they commute from neighboring parishes. A few make the drive from St. Tammany, and another comes from Washington Parish.

One of the St. Tammany commuters is Independence Magnet School Principal Donnis Casanave, who is beginning her first year as principal after a few years as acting principal.

She reported no major issues other than a few students confused over the modified plan They showed up at the middle school but were supposed to be at Independence Leadership Academy. At that elementary school, confusion over a classmate's shared name led to Joel Jackson moving his supplies to a different cubby.

"You see? We all make mistakes," teacher Illg said. "We're going to learn together."