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An Eventful Year In Newtown's Public School District



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An Eventful Year In Newtown’s Public School District

By Eliza Hallabeck

From high school students becoming published authors to celebrating world peace while standing in the form of a peace sign outside Reed Intermediate School, 2009 was a notable year in the Newtown Public Schools.

The year began for the school system with students writing letters to troops overseas. On Monday, January 5, the day students returned from the 2008-2009 winter break, Reed Intermediate School students found themselves in the school’s cafetorium to hear a schoolwide assembly. The St Valentine’s Day Letter Project, a local initiative to send troops serving overseas valentines, kicked off with a visit and assembly by Newtown resident Command Sergeant Major Arthur Fredericks. The project sent out more than 2,500 letters to service personnel.

Over the course of four days at Reed Intermediate School, more than 160 students tried their best to get a golden ticket into 2009’s school musical Willy Wonka, based on Roald Dahl’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Students from both fifth and sixth grade signed up to try out for the play.

NMS had an altered schedule on Tuesday, January 20, as the students and faculty throughout the school stopped to witness the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States of America, Barack Hussein Obama. Social studies teacher Oona Mulligan said she booked the auditorium for her cluster to watch the inauguration of President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden when school resumed classes after winter break. The planned celebration of the day then grew to include all of the seventh grade students at NMS to watch the inauguration in the auditorium, and eighth grade students watched the event in the school’s cafeteria. Ms Mulligan’s Seven Orange Cluster started its celebration of the inauguration at 10:30 am as the entire cluster gathered in the homerooms of teachers John Ventresca and Brooke Unger.

Students, faculty, and staff at Newtown High School saw a culmination of effort come together on February 2, when delegates from NHS’s sister school, Liaocheng No. 3 Middle School in the Shandong Province of China, visited the school. The rear gymnasium at NHS was decorated with blue and gold N’s hanging round rice paper lanterns and standing walls hung with student artwork for the event. A line of culinary students stood ready to cook and serve food to those in attendance for the Welcome Ceremony for the four educators and ten students from Liaocheng No. 3 Middle School.

“It’s amazing to see that it’s finally come to fruition,” said Assistant Principal Jason Hiruo, who traveled to China with NHS social studies teacher Martha Parvis the previous April to forge the formal agreement between the two schools. The morning, which included a breakfast of assorted donuts, bagels, and personalized omelets, had members of NHS’s String Ensemble playing for the crowd and the NHS Singers performing.

Only one student could move on from the final round of the Poetry Out Loud competition at Newtown High School on Monday, February 9, but roughly 400 students in English courses at Newtown High School took their chances in the 2009 Poetry Out Loud competition over the course of two weeks. It all started within the classrooms as students choose poems to read from the Poetry Out Loud’s website. Poetry Out Loud is a national poetry recitation contest. Within the classrooms, students recited poetry for their teacher, class, and visiting teachers, who acted as judges. Roughly two students from each classroom moved on to the semifinal round, and those 43 students recited their poetry Thursday, February 5.

For four class periods the semifinalists sat in the lecture hall and waited their turn to perform before six judges and peers as English classes rotated into the Lecture Hall for their class period. All of the English teachers at the high school were invited to have their students participate in this year’s Poetry Out Loud competition. Jess Thomas came in fourth place, Zoe Destories came in third, Quinlan Mitchell came in second, and Allyson Makuch came in first.

More than 100 Newtown Middle School students took part in the 2009 production of Annie for the school’s spring musical. Annie, a musical about an orphan’s search of finding a family, opened Friday, March 20.

“This show inspires hope,” said Jenn Sinal, who directed the play with Susan Lang. “And that’s why we do this, to bring the kids to a new level of inspiration and hope.”

Published Work

NHS Student CJ Spath saw a paper he wrote for NHS teacher Russ Weiss’s class published in the Fall…Winter 2008…2009 edition of the Connecticut Journal of Science Education. The paper, called “Wandering Shorelines: The Ecosystem of the Niobrara Sea,” made the front cover of the publication. CJ’s article focused on the inland sea, formed between the west and east coasts of North America 85 million years ago, and the “truly amazing ecosystem; in which various marine denizens thrived on the constantly moving sandbars,” reads the article.

NHS student Krutarth Mehta also saw his work published in 2009. Krutarth’s cookbook, Easy N’ Spicy International Food, became available for sale on Lulu.com and Amazon.com. The 15-year-old said his teachers were a big help.

Works created in school by five Newtown High School artists were selected by the National K–12 Exhibition Foundation to be a part of the 2009 show, and the students’ work was five out of 211 pieces selected nationally. Junior Chelsea Sabia, sophomores Alexandra Avila and Kristen Budd, and seniors Bridget Naphen and Ashley Mancini had their work exhibited April 8 through 11 in Phoenix, Ariz., at the 2009 National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts Conference.

On April 7, the Board of Education learned Reed Intermediate School Principal Donna Denniston had announced her retirement after 31 years in education.

“I’m certain opening Reed has been a highlight,” Superintendent of Schools Janet Robinson said at the meeting. “She had the opportunity to do something that every committed administrator in education would love to do, and she did a wonderful job. The legacy that Donna leaves is a true tribute to her caring and commitment to the children of Newtown, and we will start making plans for a committee to do a search. It will be tough shoes to fill.”

In the rear area of the parking lot of Hawley Elementary School on April 14, multiple people prepared a portion of land to be a vegetable and herb garden for the school. A sitting area for teachers and students, and an after school club was also planned. Students at the school were taught how to grow and take care of vegetables and herbs.

“We’re going to focus on vegetables and herbs,” said Kat Barton, co-director of The Graceful Planet in town. Ms Barton said she was talking to Nina Stout, a nutritionist involved with Fair Foods in Fairfield County, a group putting effort, she said, to bring nutritional foods into schools, and a member of the Hawley PTA, when the idea for the garden was born. Fair Foods in Fairfield County also raised $136 for the Hawley garden, Ms Stout said.

Artists Abound

Three schools Newtown Public Schools celebrated art with art shows and special one-night exhibits of students’ art. At Hawley Elementary School a year’s worth of art spilled into the school’s library on Wednesday, May 6. At Sandy Hook School on Thursday, May 7, arrows pointed visitors around the school to view more art. At Head O’ Meadow on Monday, May 11, a brochure waited to describe what visitors could expect in Gallery 2009. More than 1, 200 art pieces were on display during Sandy Hook’s art show. Sunflowers inspired by artist Vincent Van Gogh and created by first grade students were on display along with Pop Art creations from the fourth grade at Head O’ Meadow on May 11. The outside hallway surrounding the library at Head O’ Meadow was filled with visitors enjoying the student’s work from the year.

Community members, and some of their pets, participated in Reed Intermediate Interact Club’s Run For Ron event Saturday, May 16. More than 100 people registered for the event, and more than $4,000 was raised to help the school district Business Manager Ron Bienkowski and his family with medical expenses associated to Mr Bienkowski’s t diagnosis of a rare form of leukemia. A three-mile and a five-mile loop were designated around the school to help runners and walkers know which direction to go.

A Mock Crash was held at Newtown High School on Tuesday, May 19. Students from all four grades at the high school made their way to the Blue & Gold Stadium to witness the mock crash, presented in cooperation by Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire & Rescue Company, Newtown Police Department, Newtown Parks and Recreation Department, District Health Coordinator Judy Blanchard, District School Nursing Supervisor Dee Cupole, Newtown Ambulance and Emergency Services, the Newtown High School administrative team, and the Town of Fairfield Police Department, who coordinated a special appearance of Eagle One, a regional search and rescue helicopter. Theater Production 2 students Steve Bonnano, Sarah Poarch, Sarah Hetzer, Connor Hartgraves, and Emily Ashbolt wore staged bloody clothes and makeup to help them more accurately portray the part of the victims in the two-car head-on collision.

Jaime Rivera was unanimously voted by the Board of Education on May 26 to become the newest addition to the Newtown High School faculty. He began his work as the new assistant principal at the school on July 1.

Over the course of three nights, May 26, 27, and 28, as different concerts were held in the Newtown High School auditorium, fine and applied art students waited in the school’s lobby at booths from 6 until 9, ready to explain and entertain guests with what they have learned and created all during the 2008-2009 school year. For the first time, the Fine & Applied Art Department Arts Festival was held in conjunction with the school’s Spring Concerts.

The Class Of 2009

The members of the Newtown High School Class of 2009 walked into the O’Neill Center at Western Connecticut State University on Thursday, June 25, to graduate before friends, family and, now, former teachers. Speakers for the ceremony included Superintendent of Schools Janet Robinson, Board of Education Chair Elaine McClure, class salutatorian Judith Carnali, class valedictorian Gretchen Hoffmann, and Newtown High School Principal Charles Dumais.

As first vice president of Student Government for the graduating class, Genna Rossi spoke regarding the students’ many accomplishments. “We are the class of 2009,” said Genna, “and we are one for the history books.” While listing the many athletic accomplishments of this graduating class, including 30 SWC Championship players, Genna thanked the authors of articles that helped the students track their accomplishments and raise money for causes. “Together we have raised the bar for future graduating classes,” said Genna.

Two new full gardens and planted raised beds, the bases of which were already in place, found a home thanks to the work of Middle Gate Elementary School’s Garden Club. For the first time, Middle Gate Elementary School students had the opportunity to participate in a Junior Master Gardener Program, which is an international certification program for youth, through the school’s Garden Club. The six-week program offered at the end of the school year was called Health & Nutrition From the Garden, and allowed students to work toward their Junior Master Gardener Certificate.

The quiet hallways and seemingly vacant classrooms at Head O’ Meadow on July 7, gave no signs of eager and learning students, until the beat and sound of Footloose could be heard from the Newtown Continuing Education’s SMART 2009 Intro to Dance & Musical Theater program just inside the school’s cafetorium. The SMART programs offered just some of the summer programs within Newtown during the summer of 2009. The Newtown Parks & Recreation summer programs also taught and entertained students during the summer.

“A whole lot of excitement” and “a real blessing” were ways Sharon Epple Bietel explained her new position as principal of Reed Intermediate School on Thursday, July 16, the day after she began working in the Newtown School District for the second time in her career. Dr Epple began her teaching career in 1986 at Head O’ Meadow School, where she taught first and second grade, before moving up to an assistant principal job at Saxe Middle School in New Canaan in 1997.

Flu Fears

Stay home when sick, wash hands frequently, and cover the mouth and nose with a tissue when sneezing. Those are key points Health District Director Donna Culbert emphasized September 1 as ways to help prevent contamination and the spread of the H1N1 virus, commonly known as the swine flu. The virus was expected to make a resurgence with many school districts back in session.

September 2, students in the public schools returned to start the 2009-2010 school year. Backpacks and new sneakers could be seen at the bus stops across town as students waited for the bus to take them to school for the first time this school year.

Nearly 1,100 students, faculty, and staff made their way out onto Reed Intermediate’s soccer field Monday, September 21. Many white T-shirts with the school’s name were visible, and slowly, as people stood next to one another, a large peace sign and the word “peace” came together. As the school celebrated International Day of Peace, many Newtown residents and businesses received cards and hand-colored peace signs from Reed Intermediate students asking them to remember International Peace Day.

When her sixth grade teacher, Valerie Hepburn-Pagano, handed out a new assignment to the class, Reed Intermediate School student Hunter James thought it would be cool to win this year’s American Freedom Essay Contest, run by The Constitutional Walking Tour of Philadelphia, but she did not think she could win.

“When I first learned I was the winner,” said Hunter on Wednesday, November 18, “I was completely in shock.”

This year was the third year of the Annual Constitution Day Essay Contest, also called the American Freedom Essay Contest. In honor of Constitution Day, September 17, the Constitutional Walking Tour asked students to write about American freedom. The entries had to be 100 to 300 words long, and the submission deadline was October 16. There were three levels for the entries to by judged; Elementary School, Middle School, and High School.

Just inside the doors to the lobby of Newtown Middle School on December 2, students gathered tightly together while parents and school staff worked to separate 1,536 tubs of cookie dough. The annual fundraiser will make more than 73, 000 cookies from the 1, 500-plus tubs of cookie dough sold this year, and the proceeds will go toward funding a student trip to Washington, D.C., and Gettysburg, Penn, scheduled for later during the school year.

After hearing two books read to them December 11, first grade students at Head O’ Meadow learned new measuring skills during the school’s 12th annual Measurement Morning. With 80 first grade students and ten adults surrounding her, Head O’ Meadow teacher Anne Annesley explained to the group meeting in the school’s library that they were about to hear two books about measurement. Math/science specialist Gail Maletz said the first Measurement Morning was held in 1998.

Looking back on 2009 in the school district, Assistant Superintendent of Schools Linda Gejda said she was proud.

“We are proud of the accomplishments of our students,” Dr Gejda said. “I am also impressed with our students who use their talents, skills, and knowledge to bring happiness and enjoyment into the lives of others. They help to create a better community for all.”

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