Teachers at Otis Orchards School greeted students Thursday as they entered for their first day of school.
“Welcome back,” said Principal Suzanne Savall before hugging the students.
The school year began as so many before it: Teachers telling students how much they’d grown since June, and families checking the bulletin board to see which teachers their students have this year.
At Otis, Savall estimated there are between 525 and 550 students attending this first day. It’s the first day in the final year of transition to a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade system throughout East Valley School District.
“It is exciting,” Savall said.
For eighth-graders this means they study electives and exploratory classes all day Monday at the Middle Level Learning Center starting Sept. 9. Band, orchestra and choir students take music classes, there are several health and fitness classes to choose from as well as technology, woodshop, leadership, art, and art history in music. All other music classes are now held at the Otis Annex, an old church around the corner from Otis Orchards School, but accessible to students through a gate in the schoolyard.
“It’s more opportunity and it’s more diverse,” said Superintendent John Glenewinkel. “This really gives us an opportunity to do some new electives, particularly high-tech stuff.”
District officials said students are getting as much music and physical education as they did last year. Curriculum director Lorri Reilly said last year, the eighth grade students received about 227 minutes of music by taking 48 minutes at their home school Tuesday through Friday and 35 minutes on Mondays at the MLLC.
This year, they will receive about 229 minutes of music instruction – 120 minutes two days a week at their home school and 109 on Mondays at the MLLC.
For health and fitness classes, last year the eighth-graders received about 227 minutes of instruction. This year, they will get 229 minutes if they choose two health and fitness electives, 175 minutes if the student takes one health and fitness elective, which is required.
Seventh grade band and orchestra students travel to the Middle Level Learning Center – the former East Valley Middle School – for two hours on Mondays. If they aren’t in those music programs, Otis received a grant from the Office of Adolescent Health for two classes. The Teen Outreach Program offers students a chance to focus on three goals – healthy behaviors, life skills and sense of purpose. Community Voices focuses on youth empowerment and community building.
The rest of the week, both seventh- and eighth-graders will be at Otis. Every day they take a class of language arts and history, a class of math and science, and music students get band and orchestra on Thursdays and Fridays.
During the last half hour of the day, fifth through eighth graders get What I Need (WIN) time. They can take electives, finish homework, get extra help with subjects or finish assignments.
There are split start times every day. Fifth- through eighth-graders are in class from 7:45 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. Kindergarten through fourth-graders attend from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. For families that have older students on the earlier schedule, Savall said younger siblings can visit the library until school starts.
The school is getting crowded. While last year, Otis had around 430 students, there are now more than 500.
“We have made it work,” Savall said. Because music classes are now held in the Otis Annex, the old orchestra room has been converted to a girls’ changing room so students can change for fitness class. The boys’ changing room is now on the stage.
Otis received two new portable buildings at the beginning of last school year, one of which has four classrooms, two for seventh grade and two for eighth. The second one used to hold the multipurpose room, but now it’s a science lab, a computer lab and meeting space. The transition has moved forward, despite concerns from some parents, community members and teachers. Instrumental music teacher Matt Thistle has spoken out in the past about the transition.
“Yes, I have concerns,” he said. “Given that the bond did not pass, I would have preferred to have put a hold on the progression toward K-8 until the buildings could have been modified to accommodate the additional students.
“Having said that, my colleagues are dedicated professionals who will do their best with the resources they have been given to provide a quality experience for their kids,” Thistle said.
As far as the transition to K-8 goes, Savall is a big believer in the change.
“I would never go back,” she said. “Some of these eighth-graders I’ve had since they were 3 years old.”