Ridgefield principals talk back-to-school changes

New Scotland Principal Jill Katkocin smiles with fourth grade student Ava on Aug. 15.

New Scotland Principal Jill Katkocin smiles with fourth grade student Ava on Aug. 15.

Alison Pratt

A bluebird trail at Farmingville, a new playground at Branchville, renovated student bathrooms at the high school, independent learning for middle schoolers and a system-wide emphasis on social and emotional intelligence, kindness, and standards-based learning will welcome in the new school year, according to the principals of Ridgefield’s nine public schools.

"The opening of school is always an exciting time,” said Ridgefield High School Principal Stacey Gross.

The new school year begins before the Labor Day weekend. Students in kindergarten through eighth grade in all Ridgefield Public Schools, along with Ridgefield High School freshmen, start Thursday, Aug. 29. The high school’s upperclassmen — sophomores, juniors and seniors — will have their first day Friday, Aug 30, under a longstanding tradition that allows freshmen one day of having the high school to themselves to get oriented.

RHS upgrades

“At Ridgefield High School we look forward to welcoming our students for a dynamic, fun year filled with new learning,” Gross said.

“We are excited to be introducing the following new courses this year: Fundamental Skills and Principles of Coaching, History Through Film, Multivariable Calculus, and Robotics II.

“In addition, there has been a number of facility and technology upgrades that will surely enhance the RHS campus,” she said. “These include new carpeting in the LLC (library learning commons), a new gym floor, new sidewalks, complete renovations to six student bathrooms, and new LCD screens in several classrooms."

RHS is also working to have its accreditation renewed by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, a non-profit organization that oversees some 1,500 educational institutions.

“The school will have a primary focus on welcoming the NEASC Accreditation Committee for the October 2019 visitation,” Gross said.

Emotional intelligence

Ridgefield’s middle and elementary schools will have a renewed focus on social and emotional intelligence under a program designed by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. The program, called RULER, is designed to foster soft skills — recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing, and regulating emotion (R-U-L-E-R) — that are viewed as critical to effective teaching and learning, sound decision making, physical and mental health, and success in academics and the world beyond.

“As always, we are truly excited for the start of the school year and the hope, opportunities and wonder it brings!,” said Scotts Ridge Middle School Principal Tim Salem.

“Yes, at Scotts Ridge we have begun embedding some of the early tenets of the RULER program and plan to continue that work throughout this school year,” Salem said. “We are fortunate to have two Yale fellows on our staff who are currently part of the RULER team at Yale: Assistant Principal Lisa Frese and sixth grade teacher Keira Kowalczyk.“

“At East Ridge Middle School we are so excited for the start of the school year!” said East Ridge Principal Patricia Raneri.

“Our focus this year is to develop independent learners. We want our students to be able to initiate, organize and execute their own ideas into action. By building this foundation, our students will be able to apply these skills to any aspect of their lives — personal or academic.

“And of course, one of our first goals with the start of the year is to foster a positive school climate,” Raneri said. ‘We will do this with activities designed to help students make connections with their teacher and their peers.

“When we all know each other well the rest is easy.”

New principal

Ridgefield’s six elementary schools will also be focusing on fostering social and emotional skills.

Scotland Elementary School’s approach was explained by its new principal, Jill Katkocin, who is coming to Scotland from a position as assistant principal of Ponus Ridge Middle School in Norwalk.

“The Scotland staff is committed to ensure that every child continues to develop their academic and social emotional skills,” Katkocin told The Press. “Scotland will be a ‘kind campus’ this year as a means to support the social emotional learning of students. We are partnering again with Ben’s Bells to educate our community about the benefits of kindness, and empower them to create a culture of kindness in Scotland.”

Katkocin’s career began with teaching the blind in Bronx, New York, and included 11 years of teaching in special education and elementary school classrooms in Bethel, as well as curriculum work in Brookfield and Norwalk.

“Scotland Elementary School has a rich history of academics, enrichment, and tradition, and provides students with many opportunities!” Katkocin said. “...The new school year brings the promise of new challenges and new possibilities. We are thrilled to begin the adventure of a new school year!”

Revised schedule

The elementary schools will also be moving to a new schedule.

“In an effort to ensure consistency of instructional minutes among all six elementary schools, this year we will be operating on what is known as a six day schedule,” said Barlow Mountain Elementary School Principal Rebecca Pembrook.

Students will have what are now being called “essentials classes” — art, music, library and physical education or “P.E.” — rotating across a series of six days, Day A through Day F, rather than on a five-day Monday-through-Friday schedule.

“Every class has its own schedule and this will be shared with you,” Pembrook informes parents, “so that you know what essentials class your child has every day. This is particularly important for PE to make certain that your child wears sneakers, or library for returning books.”

The ‘kind school’

Social and emotional learning and kindness are being emphasized at Ridgebury Elementary School.

“At RES we are excited to continue to focus on social and emotional learning and meeting the needs of all learners,” said Principal Jamie Palladino.

“We pride ourselves in being the ‘kind school’ where we support one another and celebrate each others’ differences,” Palladinio said. “We will continue to focus on standards-based learning with the help of our coaches, and pride ourselves in being open to new learning as professionals.

“We will be tapping into the talents of all our learners through hands on science, the makerspace, the use technology, arts and music as well as outdoor learning with the garden lessons.”

New playground

At Branchville Elementary School improvements to both programs and facilities will be evident this year, said Branchville Principal Keith Margolus.

“ ‘Educating Everyone Takes Everyone’ is one of the first statements to greet you when you enter the lobby at Branchville. We look forward to building on our strong history of living these words,” Margolus told The Press.

“There are many and programs that are the result of this collaboration and the one that we are so very proud to unveil is the new playground. We are very grateful for the BES community donations that made this happen! This joint effort between the school, PTA and Town of Ridgefield is nearly complete.

“Speaking of the playground, there have been a myriad of substantial physical improvements this year. There were upgrades to technology hardware. There is a fresh coat of paint on the walls, new lighting throughout the building, two new water fountains, the back parking lot was paved, the front overflow parking lot was sealed, and repairs were made to the school’s large walk-in refrigerator.

“Also, a former BES student, Luke Nelson, is pursuing his Eagle Scout rank and has organized to renovate the landscaping in one of our courtyards.”

And Branchville will continue the focus that the staff has been developing on ways to foster social and emotional intelligence.

“In the social and emotional learning domain, last year Nick DeCesare, the BES elementary supervisor, and Katie Greges, the BES school psychologist, discussed how to continue to support a positive community and navigate conflict resolution through what are called ‘restorative practices,’” Margolus said.

“We will continue to implement these practices and expand on them to provide students with more opportunities to develop compassion, self-awareness and relationship skills. This will include working with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence to implement the RULER program.”

Joyful learning

Principal Ellen Tuckner at Veterans Park Elementary School also spoke of the emphasis on social and emotional learning.

“At Veterans Park, we will continue to live our motto: ‘Work Hard. Be Kind’ as we spend time together in joyful learning experiences and taking care of one another,” Tuckner said.

“Social-emotional learning will get attention though the RULER training that our team will be attending at Yale University, as well as a reprise of our ‘Look for the Good’ gratitude campaign.

“In math and literacy, we will be focused on standards-based learning and meeting the targeted needs of all of our learners,” Tuckner said. “This means that our teachers will continue to collaborate on the best ways to provide small group and one-on-one instruction so students can meet their goals. Building on the success of this past year, we’ll be experiencing ‘Author in Residence’ and ‘Artist in Residence’ events, as well as joining with our parent community to host and enjoy STEM and literacy nights.”

Bluebird trail

Dreams and bluebirds are part of what’s happening this year at Farmingville Elementary School, according to principal Susan Gately.

“This year Farmingville’s ‘One School One Book’ is Happy Dreamer by Peter Reynolds,” Gately said. “At FES everyone dreams big dreams.

“FES is especially grateful to be welcoming kindergarten and grade one students in the RISE program to our 2019-2020 school,” she said.

“We love the creativity of dreaming. We respect each others’ dreams,” Gately said. “We love the goals we set and paths we take towards our dreams. We learn that dreams give us resilience because ‘dreamers bounce back and move forward.’ Look for the ways we share our dreams throughout this school year.

“Exciting changes are outside our school as well!” Gately said. “As you approach the front of the building you will notice a beautiful new raised garden bed built to attract birds and butterflies. This Eagle project is being completed by Ryan Shirvell, Boy Scout Troop 431.

“Alex Failla, also of Troop 431, is installing bluebird and songbird houses around the property to promote the National Bluebird Trail for his Eagle project,” Gately added. “The trail begins along the driveway and winds around the back of the school, ending in the school garden. Students will have the opportunity to log bird observations and submit to the National Bluebird Association.”