At Charter School, Calm First Morning: Games, Recess, Hand Paintings, Lunch

By C.K. WOLFSON

The first day of school at the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School feels almost like a block party: people hugging each other; adults carrying vases of flowers and trays of snacks; children buddying up; first-name basis all around. The occasion is balanced between a sense of celebration and nonchalance.

Principal Bob Moore, distinguished by his shirt and tie, strides up and down the large main hall, which also serves as the assembly area. He greets every student he passes by name and leans in to acknowledge each teacher. When several parents comment on the torrents of rain coming down - "Too bad it's raining" - he just smiles. "It's a wonderful day," he says emphatically.

The school day begins with the regular, all-school, morning meeting, attended by everyone but those starting kindergarten. And where would they put them if they came, one wonders, as the entire hall is soon crammed, knee to knee and toe to toe with almost 158 students sitting cross-legged on the floor. It is standing room only as the staff (45 full and part time) and some lingering parents line the walls.

Mr. Moore introduces the 10 new students and four new faculty members. Each name is greeted with hollers and applause. He introduces the graduating class individually. More applause. It is no one's birthday today, so he continues, explaining that there are "too many crying mothers and fathers" in the kindergarten room now, but they'll start attending morning meetings next week.

A visitor might wonder how it is possible that the students, first through 12th graders, first thing in the morning on the first day of school, jumbled tightly together, are able to demonstrate such silent attention and self-control. But they do.

Mr. Moore tells them, "It takes all of us to help each other become successful. So I ask all of you to make a contribution to this community so that someone, maybe someone you don't know, can experience success in this academic institution. Have a great year," he concludes.

It is within this context that, in the room at the end of the hall, Nichole Shank and her teaching assistant Lori Digiacomo, are introducing eight boys and five girls to school for the first time.

The parents, many of whom arrived with them, have all left. Their children, except for Cassius Paquett-Huff, who starts the morning crouching in the nook behind the cubbies, are engaged in different self-generated activities around the room. Three girls sit around a plastic tub of washable drawing markers, looking for the perfect shade of purple. A city of wooden blocks is being built. At a table covered with colorful interlocking plastic shapes, Ms. Digiacomo offers support to Zale Narkiewicz, who is struggling to build the world's tallest plastic construction.

Mrs. Shank goes over to each cluster and quietly shows them the triangle she will chime to signal cleanup time.

Zale accidentally knocks over his tower of plastic parts. He is not happy. "It's all right," Ms. Digiacomo assures him, quickly letting him work on another piece, already begun.

Mrs. Shank sounds the chime, signaling that it's time to clean up and assemble in a circle on the rug. To those who don't react, she sweetly says, "Raise your hands if you can hear this," and sounds the chime again.

When the cleanup becomes noisy at the tub of plastic parts, Mrs. Shank goes over and quietly praises how quickly the boys are working. Inspired, they volunteer to help put away the wooden blocks.

Cyrus Kennedy, Chace Lewis and Skyler Korn agree; it's what they imagined kindergarten would be like. No big deal.

There is a technique, maybe a philosophy in play, in which rather than admonishing, the children are given options to help them react appropriately. During the course of the morning, no one says, "Don't." When one little boy doesn't want to participate, he is asked to help someone else. When during a game, someone doesn't want to cover his eyes, he's instantly allowed to exercise that choice. "Close your eyes if you want to play," announces Mrs. Shank.

It's not - "Don't do this. It is instead, would you like to do that?" And, at least on this morning, it works. "Raise your hand if you want to play," instructs Mrs. Shank.

The games that are played around the circle are designed to familiarize the children with their classmates' names: bean bag name toss and guess who's missing.

It is a calm first morning: games, recess, hand paintings and lunch. Home at 12:30 p.m. It looks easy, but the adults know better. Ms. Digiacomo admits she's exhausted.