Salem - For the first time in years, students will be returning to Salem School as a single student body today rather than as elementary and middle school students.
That is because the town is uniting its elementary and middle schools into one program for pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. This means that all grades except for pre-kindergarten will operate on the same schedule, 8:40 a.m. to 3:20 p.m., and the students will ride to school together on the same buses.
There will also be changes to the school's administration.
Suzanne Zahner, formerly the middle school principal, will now be principal for all ages. Former elementary school principal Cynthia Ritchie is now the school's director of student achievement, academic programs and professional development.
Superintendent Joe Onofrio suggested the changes to the Board of Education when he discovered that Salem School was the only single-building kindergarten through eighth grade school in Connecticut to operate with two separate schedules.
By working on two separate schedules, administrators often found themselves doing "double the work," said Zahner. She also said the change would be easier on students' families, who will now be receiving one informational newsletter that covers information related to all grades.
The school will now have nine buses that carry students of all grades together, an issue that caused controversy when it was first discussed by the Board of Education this spring. At the time, parents raised concerns about how the younger and older children would interact.
While they do not expect problems with the new bus system, Ritchie and Zahner said they plan to encourage good behavior and change the culture of the buses using what they call positive behavioral incentives.
Those incentives include naming a bus of the month and featuring good student behavior on the morning announcements. Bus drivers have been asked to record "little things," like kids lending a hand to one another, and report them to the school administration. Students will also be encouraged to report the positive behavior of other students.
Another part of the program, said Zahner, is a system of bus buddies. Older students have been paired with younger kids who ride the same bus in the hopes that they will sit together and that the older student will encourage the younger one to make good choices. The buddies have been asked to exchange letters of introduction.
Zahner said that little kids can sometimes see the bigger kids and be scared, but she hopes the buddies will allow them to find "positive role models (in) these bigger, older kids."
Another change is that students will arrive at school to find breakfast available to them through a "grab and go" program. Items such as muffins, fruit and milk will be displayed on a cart in the lobby and students can bring their meal into classrooms to eat during the homeroom period.
Onofrio said the breakfast program, which will offer lower costs for students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, is a statewide initiative at the moment.
"Unfortunately, we still have a number of students who come from homes that can't afford a typical nutrition mechanism," said Onofrio, who hopes the program will help address that.
"You can't learn when you have an empty stomach," added Zahner. "It's important for the school to provide for the whole child and that includes food."
Salem received a state grant for the cart and baskets that will hold the breakfast foods.
Another change for the 2013-14 school year in Salem is physical: construction on the northern portion of the building is nearly complete. Last week, teachers donned hard hats and unpacked their belongings in their newly renovated classrooms while construction workers put the finishing touches on the building.
According to a letter Onofrio sent to parents on Aug. 22, the construction should be 80 to 85 percent complete as the school year begins and will be staggered to ensure students' complete safety. Zahner said the remaining work is mostly cosmetic and will not impact students.