The Ottumwa Courier

August 21, 2013

A new beginning

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — The first day of school wasn't without its share of hiccups, but those will be smoothed out in the coming weeks.

Teachers managed to guide all 701 Liberty Elementary students — in single file, of course — out the front doors of the school for a kickoff ceremony for the newly constructed building Wednesday morning.

While the ceremony started off with a slight hitch (staff had trouble locating the keys for the flag pole), eventually the American and Iowa flags were raised by members of the American Legion and VFW.

"If that's the biggest problem we have today, I think we're doing OK," said Liberty principal Dawn Sievertsen.

Ottumwa High School senior Maddie McKelvey belted out the "Star Spangled Banner" while the second- through fifth-grade students looked on, hands over their hearts. That was followed up by the entire school reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

"I would say everything but the drop-off went very well," said superintendent Davis Eidahl. "We anticipated that the parent pick-up and drop-off wouldn't be the most efficient the first week of school. We put a plan in place, but you really can't practice that plan or take a dry run because there's just no way to simulate actual game time."

Some of the delay may have been since it was the first day of school.

"Lots of parents want to bring their child, especially to a new school like Liberty, and take a little longer in dropping them off or even stop and walk them into the building," Eidahl said. "The most important part of today, the successful part of the transportation plan, was that all the students arrived safely."

Eidahl said some parents were stuck in line 10 to 15 minutes.

The greater congestion will likely happen after school, when it's not a simple drop-off.

"Now after school they come early, park and wait and not every child comes out at the same time, so there's going to be more congestion," he said. "We have to get through a few days of our traffic plan before we can really take a good look at what's working and what's not working."

The smooth side of the transportation plan was the bus system. Eidahl said all the buses — which enter on West Traxler Drive and loop through the north parking lot — made a quick transition.

The parents follow an identical path in the other parking lot, coming in on East Traxler Drive and looping through.

"But parents are getting used to the routines and getting used the route we designed within the parking lot," he said. "We know things aren't running as efficiently as we would like. But we'll continue to adjust and evaluate and we're in communication with city officials and police."

The brand-new school is nearly complete, Eidahl said. There's no grass outside or surrounding the playground, but seeding will take place this fall. Other than that, only a few pieces of furniture remain missing.

Third-grade special education teacher at Liberty, Courtney Berendes, said the nerves faded after this week's back-to-school events.

"It's a lot of excitement," she said of the first day of school. "After the open house there's no more nervousness — it's just excitement to start."

Berendes is looking forward to working in the new school, a change from teaching third-grade general education at Agassiz Elementary previously. She's not concerned about adjusting to the new environment.

"I just see all positive things, especially the learning communities," she said. "The teachers can plan and be around several kids, rather than one to two."

Each grade is separated into its own pod with eight classrooms in each pod.

"It's nice for special ed because I don't have to run around and figure out where all my kids are," she said. "And say second-graders, who might be nervous, they won't even see the fifth-graders that often. Each grade is its own little family."

While the focus has been on Liberty, Eidahl said the district's other schools started off the year in good shape, too.

"Today is the true test as far as actual students in the seats," he said. "You can have class lists and we can look at class numbers as far as class size, but you'll never know for sure until there's an actual individual in that seat."

There were a few surprises in this year's rosters. James and Wilson Elementary Schools both saw spikes in their kindergarten numbers.

"They have a few more kids than what we were expecting, which is a good thing, but in the same light we want to maintain optimal class size," he said. "Sometimes families move into the community over the summer and they'll wait until school starts to register."