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For Newtown Public Schools staff the 2017-18 school year began with a convocation event on August 23 at Newtown High School.

Staff members greeted one another ahead of the assembly during a breakfast in the school’s lobby. Smiles could be seen on faces of those gathered in the lobby, as the staff members greeted each other — some with hugs — after the summer break. “Happy new year” was heard more than a few times.

Life is Good Kids Foundation Founder and Chief Playmaker Steve Gross was the keynote speaker for the event. Other speakers included Interim Superintendent of Schools Lorrie Rodrigue, Assistant Superintendent of Schools Jean Evans Davila, Newtown High School Interim Principal David Roach, Newtown Federation of Teachers President Tom Kuroski, Newtown’s 2017-18 Teacher of the Year Abigail Marks, and Board of Education Vice Chair Michelle Embree Ku, who was one of the first to speak.

Speaking as a member of a political body, Ms Ku said she wanted to address “the elephant in the room.” The political environment in the country, she said, may have many questioning how challenging this coming school year will be. From the challenges of state funding to helping students navigate emotional issues, Ms Ku said many things may be more difficult in this political climate.

“Skills such as critical thinking, respectful discourse, and demonstrating empathy become incredibly important bridges in the gaps,” said Ms Ku, “and I think as a district we are prepared for this and we are well poised to strengthen those skills in our students.”

Along with highlighting ways the school board and district supports students’ social and emotional well-being, like voting to change school start times in the district for older students, Ms Ku said, “as a board we are very aware that we can set the tone for the district.”

“It is in moments of great change and unrest that we have the ability to truly demonstrate character attributes. By your actions, by your teachings, and by your example, you can make a difference in how our students learn to interact with the world, which paths they take, and which bridges they build,” Ms Ku said.

When she spoke, Dr Rodrigue said she hoped everyone present enjoyed a wonderful and restful summer break. Summer, she said, “rejuvenates us” before the start of another school year. Dr Rodrigue spoke to creating memories with her family and some of her colleagues this summer, like gathering to watch the solar eclipse on August 21.

“It is all of those significant moments we share with our families and friends and colleagues that truly make us who we are,” said Dr Rodrigue.

“When we are learning, dialoging, enjoying the arts, traveling, we are so much better for our kids. When we are collaborating, debating, finding solutions, we are modeling the practices for our learners.”

When educators are themselves, Dr Rodrigue said, “we are teaching our students lessons for life.”

Dr Rodrigue also shared a slideshow of pictures celebrating the people in the district who support educating Newtown’s youths.

Mr Gross shared the importance of not losing sight of the fact that life is good and that peace, love, and joy are important and real things. He shared a number of stories that demonstrated ways to be optimistic and support it in others.

The Life is Good Kids Foundation is a nonprofit that partners with leading child care organizations to positively impact the quality of care delivered to the most vulnerable children, according to its website, lifeisgood.com/kidsfoundation.

Educators, Mr Gross said, have two jobs: recognize and support students when they do not feel safe, and help them to feel strong, passionate, and safe while maintaining enrichment environments.

School is the best place to build optimism, said Mr Gross, adding that it is an environment where children can learn that they are a part of something and are not alone.

“We are going to make sure that kids feel engaged and they are interested and active in their learning,” said Mr Gross, “like great teachers do.”

The first day of the 2017-18 school year for students begins on Monday, August 28.

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