I spent a few hours out at San Diego Unified’s Marston Middle School in Clairemont this morning to get a sense of how the first day of school is unfolding. I’ve got some ideas for future stories — no spilling the beans yet — but here are some little things worth noting:

  • I watched the Obama speech to schoolchildren in Elizabeth Feldman’s advisory class. (Advisory is kind of like homeroom.) Principal Elizabeth Cook let teachers decide whether or not to spend class time on the speech; only two children at Marston were exempted because their parents objected to the speech.

It was a fairly ordinary speech about staying in school and giving it your all: “If you quit on school, you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country,” the president said in one representative quote. The kids seemed to find it much less controversial than the adults: No one had any questions or comments about the whole thing.

  • The times, they are a’changing. I saw one English teacher with gray hair tell kids about her Twitter feed — you can check it out here — and a classroom of kids go blank when the teacher told one to point to the board like Vanna White. “You haven’t seen that show?” the teacher asked, aghast. “That’s it. I’m old.”
  • Things went smoothly, almost eerily so, for day one at Marston. Kids found their classes. The buses arrived on time, which is a big deal for a school where roughly one-third of students are bused into the school from other neighborhoods. “Pinch me,” Vice Principal Alex Nguyen said to Cook when she stopped by her office. And Marston has been insulated from a lot of the turnover that is happening at other schools; only two of its employees decided to retire with the golden handshake, for instance.
  • Marston still has a full time librarian, a full time music teacher, a full time art teacher, and a full time nurse. I kept asking Cook how she was managing to keep all those staffers amid the budget cuts. She uses money from a number of different sources: federal money for disadvantaged kids, money for English learners, parent fundraising, etc. I’d need to see a balance sheet to break it down, but on first glance, I was impressed. Cook said ultimately, it comes down to having a will and finding a way.
  • Technology is being installed in 6th grade classrooms this year, but not all are there yet. Some had digital whiteboards, but others were still waiting, and other equipment, such as netbooks for students and voice amplification, weren’t in place yet.
  • Best classroom sign that I saw: “Dear Students: Ms. Vinnard does not have a hearing problem! If she ignores you, it is probably because you should raise your hand!”
  • Classes were bigger than usual for Marston, where teachers and parents have typically voted to use federal money for disadvantaged students to keep class sizes lower. Deputy Superintendent Chuck Morris put the kibosh on using that money to lower class sizes this year, so some classes grew from 27 students last year up to 36 students this year, despite no official changes in middle school class size.

I did some quick counting and saw classes that ranged from 21 to 38 students at Marston. Cook overhead someone on her walkie-talkie mentioning a “furniture issue” — teacher-speak for too many kids and not enough chairs.

However, the school is still keeping classes smaller — in a different way. Marston is spending some of that same federal money for “pull out” teachers who can take some students for focused tutoring, whittling down class sizes at least temporarily so that teachers can focus on fewer children.

  • This may just be a newsflash to me, but apparently plaid is in with middle schoolers. I would put the percentage of Marston students wearing plaid today at 15 or 20 percent, easily. Best T-shirts? A girl in a purple shirt that read “YEAH, I’M THE ISH” and a boy in a black T-shirt that said “CHICK MAGNET” with — guess what — yellow baby chicks. Also, one girl had some serious Amy Winehouse hair going.

How was your first day of school in San Diego Unified? Send me your observations, cheers and jeers at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org.


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