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Year In Review: What A Year For Newtown Public Schools

Published: January 3, 2017

For students in the Newtown Public Schools 2016 was a busy year, filled with projects and accomplishments. The year included many projects, lessons, and one special homecoming. In the final weeks of the year, students at a number of schools were focusing on kindness and supporting charities.

The year began with Newtown Middle School and Reed Intermediate School students competing in their schools’ final rounds of the National Geographic Bee competition. To participate in the final round of the school’s National Geographic Bee, students first competed in clusters before advancing through rounds to the final championships. NMS students faced off on the school’s auditorium stage on January 12, and after rounds of questions Jackson Hebner was named the school’s champion. Two days later, again after rounds of questions, Ethan McGinnis was named the intermediate school’s champion.

On January 27, Middle Gate Elementary School hosted visitors at its school when Principal Christopher Geissler welcomed parents to a “State of the Gate” event to learn about and explore the school. Through the day’s events parents witnessed lessons and spoke with students about projects they had completed so far in the 2015-16 school year.

Mid-Year Graduation
For 2015-16 School Year

The start of February had NHS hosting a gathering in the school’s cafetorium for the midyear graduation ceremony on February 2. After speeches and the ceremonial walk across the stage, a reception was held, with food provided by the school’s culinary department to celebrate the graduates. Superintendent of Schools Joseph V. Erardi, Jr, wished the students “the absolute best,” while NHS Principal Lorrie Rodrigue said it is always a privilege to watch graduates “take that next big step.”

Four days later the NHS Winter Guard kicked off its Winter 2016 season on February 6 with two exhibition appearances, first at Brookfield High School in the afternoon, followed by an exhibition at Masuk High School in Monroe later that evening.

Head O’ Meadow hosted its annual STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) Night on February 9. Math/science specialist Chrissie Pierce oversaw the evening and EverWonder Children’s Museum and school PTA members assisted. Activities were offered, like an estimation station and fingerprinting, which had students examine their own fingerprint under a microscope.

February also had students and volunteers from throughout Newtown participating in the annual Valentines For Troops effort, which sends letters and care packages to deployed military personnel. Sandy Hook Elementary School and Hawley Elementary School students were just some of the local children that participated in the effort to spread love before Valentine’s Day, February 14.

Middle Gate’s two Community Circles on February 19 highlighted “citizenship” with some help from visitors and presenters — State Senator Tony Hwang, First Selectman Pat Llodra, Dr Erardi, local volunteer firefighter Bill McAllister, and police officer and Newtown Middle School Resource Officer (SRO) William Chapman. Middle Gate fourth grade teacher Linda Baron organized the Community Circle and shared information about citizenship with the students throughout both assemblies.

The NHS Winter Percussion began its fourth music season with a competition at New Milford High School on February 20. The 2016 show was called “Outbreak” and featured the songs “Toxic” and “Radio Active.”

Middle Gate students took part in the school’s Diversity Day on March 11, which was conducted to highlight and teach students about differences people may have.

“The Diversity Day program is one of my favorite occasions of the year,” said Mr Geissler after the event. “Our children really put themselves in ‘other people’s shoes’ by engaging in the hands-on activities. We include a reflection and home-school component which adds to the learning experience.”

NMS Jazz Band members and Jazz Band Director Mark Mahoney traveled to the University of New Hampshire’s Clark Terry Jazz Festival on March 12. After participating, the students overwhelmingly said they enjoyed the trip to New Hampshire and the experiences they gained from attending the festival.

By March 15 the NHS Best Buddies chapter had roughly 1,000 signatures in support of its effort to “Spread the Word to End the Word.” According to r-word.org, which is supported by Special Olympics and Best Buddies, the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign asks people to pledge not to use the word “retard(ed)” because it is hurtful, exclusive, offensive, and derogatory. NHS students filled out cards to affirm their pledge, and the cards were put on display in the school’s main lobby.

Musicals And More

The NHS spring musical production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast ran from March 16 to March 20. The musical was the last one to be staged before the high school’s auditorium renovation project was set to begin. NHS cast members also offered a special Fairy Tale Breakfast on March 19 for children and families to greet the characters in the school’s cafetorium.

Thirty-six Sandy Hook School fourth graders came to school early, twice a week, for ten weeks to perform in the school’s production of Willy Wonka Kids, based on the book by Roald Dahl. Performances were held March 30 and March 31 in the evening for parents and school community members.

For the second year in a row, Hawley hosted a STEM Night for third and fourth graders and their parents on March 31. Hawley math-science specialist Jenna Connors, who organized the event, said the evening is now an annual one for the school. Volunteers oversaw stations with activities for the event, including EverWonder Children’s Museum.

All of March had Middle Gate students — under the guidance of advisors Lina Silveira, Diane Dennis, and Kate Magness— preparing to publish a student newspaper, which the students voted to name The Middle Gate Bee. The paper was unveiled at the school’s Middle Gate Loves to Read Week kick-off assembly on April 4.

Also at the start of April, the Connecticut PTA announced Dr Erardi was named as its 2016 Outstanding Superintendent. The surprise announcement was made during a weekly administrators meeting at the Newtown Municipal Center on April 1. Middle Gate PTA President Debbie DeBlasi led a group into the meeting to announce the news.
NMS’s musical production of Fiddler on the Roof Jr was staged April 1 to 3 at the school.

A delegation of students and educators, visiting Newtown with the Newtown International Center for Education (NICE), arrived on March 30 from I.E.S. Las Encinas School in Sevilla, Spain. According to NICE Spain Program Manager Liz Ward, the delegation arrived on March 30 and are stayed through April 8. During the visit, delegation members stayed with host families, who were given an itinerary, complete with suggested activities.

The NHS Winter Percussion ensemble completed its 2016 season on April 9 by earning second place after participating in the MAC Championship event held at Westhill High School in Stamford. The ensemble also earned “Best Class A Percussion in Connecticut.”

Author Peter H. Reynolds visited Sandy Hook School on April 22 and gave presentations for students. At one assembly, Mr Reynolds told each of the students they are artists, before sharing how he came up with the idea behind his book The Dot.

NMS hosted its annual Celebration of the Arts event on April 26. For the event student artwork was on display and students performed a range of talents as fellow students and family members toured the school.

Reed students performed Disney’s High School Musical Jr for a school assembly on April 29, and for the public April 29 and April 30.

Promoting Education

The Newtown Education Foundation (NEF) hosted a cocktail party on May 3 at Dere Street Restaurant as a fundraiser and kick-off event for the newly formed foundation. NEF’s mission is to enhance the learning experience for Newtown students by promoting innovation and creativity through collaboration with the community, according to the foundation.

At the Connecticut PTA Annual Meeting/Awards dinner on May 3 Middle Gate won six awards and Head O’ Meadow was honored for being named a National PTA School of Excellence for the 2015-17 school years, which was announced in September of 2015. Dr Erardi was also honored for being named the 2016 Outstanding Superintendent by the state PTA.

Middle Gate third and fourth grade students, and their parents, were invited to the school during the evening of May 4 to participate in the school’s annual STEM Night. With the date of the event landing on May 4, math/science specialist Jill Bracksieck and Principal Christopher Geissler made the event’s theme be space in honor of the popular saying, “May the 4th be with you.”

The annual Middle Gate Madness event took over the elementary school’s building and its back lot on May 13. The event offered many activities, vendors, and other options for the attending students and family members. The evening included a sand art activity, activities overseen by Ben’s Bells and by EverWonder Children’s Museum, a bounce house, live music, demonstrations by jugglers, a dunk tank and a “cake walk.”

NHS sophomore Talia Hankin directed Head O’ Meadow’s production of Peter Pan, which was performed for students on May 26 and for school community members the evening of May 27.

For Newtown’s elementary schools, the 2015-16 field days were colorful ones, complete with sun and spirit. The field days were held between May 27 and June 6 at the four schools.

Newtown High School’s Unified Theater program presented its original show Our Place in the World for the community June 4 and 5. In Unified Theater, students with and without disabilities, of all backgrounds, come together as equals to put on a production entirely organized, written, and directed by the students themselves. Jordan Williams and Nicholas Stowell were the student directors for the show.

“So get ready for our perfectly imperfect show,” said Nicholas before the first night presentation.

Moving Up And On

On the evening of June 8, NMS eighth grade students were at Western Connecticut State University’s O’Neill Center for the school’s Moving-Up Ceremony.

“This evening is our opportunity to celebrate and recognize our students,” said NMS Principal Thomas Einhorn, who was one of multiple speakers before students walked across the stage to graduate from NMS.

Three days later, despite an impending forecast of rain, the sky was clear and the weather fair as the 2016 graduating class of NHS lined up outside WCSU’s O’Neill Center, June 11. NHS Principal Lorrie Rodrigue welcomed the packed crowd with an opening address and told the 400-plus graduates, “You decide what life you want. It starts with all that you’ve learned, the relationships you’ve built, experiences you’ve gained, and your persistence in discovering where you want to go and who you want to become.”

After the last bell on June 13 at NMS, students exited for dismissal from the 2015-16 school year. There were smiles and many teachers holding yellow paper smiley faces and waving goodbye. “Bubbles!” one Hawley Elementary School student said, roughly an hour later, as that school dismissed for the year. Students ran or bounced through the bubbles blown for dismissal by office staffer Lisa Petrovich. “Happy summer!” one student said to a teacher before jumping on the bus.

The school year still had a few lingering moments left, however, for then-rising high school freshmen Julie Hess and Julia Kanaan, who worked after school ended on June 13 to publish an app on the Google Play store. The app that the girls designed helps toddlers learn about animals and animal sounds, and it is aptly named “Animal Sounds.”

The summer between the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years had students attending day camps at Dickinson Memorial Park and Treadwell Park through Newtown Parks & Recreation and at Head O’ Meadow for the SMART (Summer Music and Art) Camp program through Newtown Continuing Education.

Before the new school year began, Newtown Public Schools educators and staff gathered in the NHS gymnasium on August 24 for a convocation to start the 2016-17 school year, ahead of the first day of school on August 29. Board of Education Chair Keith Alexander, Assistant Superintendent of Schools Jean Evans Davila, Dr Erardi, and others spoke during the assembly.

“I am confident that every employee — 1,000 employees strong — can reflect in June of 2017 that they worked as hard and as smart as they possibly could for youngsters that needed their intelligence, their guidance, and their wisdom,” said Dr Erardi at the convocation. “We will have an extraordinary school year and every youngster, one at a time, will have the opportunity to be our best hope for the future.”

A Homecoming For
Sandy Hook School

Kindergarten students across the district were welcomed at Newtown elementary schools the morning of August 25, just days before the start of the 2016-17 school year. Kindergarten students rode the bus for the first time, and at the newly opened Sandy Hook School building educators greeted the students with smiles and ready guidance.

The 2016-17 school year began on August 26. All across town that morning, some students waited at bus stops for parents to take photos, while others reportedly jumped onto their bus without looking over their shoulders.

As students arrived at the new Sandy Hook School building, they may have noticed a large American flag hanging on display from a Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire & Rescue ladder truck parked on the neighboring property. A sign was also posted near the school entrance reading, “Welcome Home Sandy Hook School.”

By September 12 students at Head O’ Meadow were eating lunch at new tables purchased with approximately $25,000 raised by the school’s PTA. The space used to have long rectangular tables, which were replaced with round tables.
The NHS Marching Band & Guard scored wins in its division in the first two competitions of its season, September 10 and 17. The 2016 show titled “Something Wicked This Way Comes — Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival” was based on the classic dark and sinister fantasy novel by Ray Bradbury.

The Newtown International Center for Education (NICE) hosted a delegation of visiting students and teachers from Liaocheng, in the Shandong Province of China, September 30 to October 9. Throughout their stay in Newtown the delegates participated in a number of activities and outings. Delegates shadowed NHS students, the adults toured both NHS and the new Sandy Hook Elementary School building, the group visited New York City, toured Yale University, and spent time with host families.

From learning what smoke detectors sound like to climbing through fire trucks, students learned safety lessons from local fire companies ahead of and during Fire Prevention Week, October 9 to 15 this year.

The NHS’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) club hosted its annual Ally Week October 17 to 21. The group has about 30 members who identify as part of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) community or are friends and supporters of the group. Each day of Ally Week, the organization planned different events and activities to educate the school’s students and faculty, as well as encourage people to show their support.

School Spirit And Pep

Ahead of the Homecoming Pep Rally on October 28, NHS held a Spirit Week, with students and staff dressing and decorating the building to show their school spirit. The week included a Color Wars day, which had different grade levels wearing different colors; Super Hero Day, which had students and staff dress up as super heroes; Decades Day, which had different grade levels dress in the preferred clothing of different decades.

The top three winning groups in the 2016 Scarecrow Contest at NMS were announced November 8. The scarecrows were on display and open for voting at the school November 5 and November 6. The first place scarecrow was “Hakuna Matata — Lion King,” the second place scarecrow was “Buckbeak,” and third place went to “Five Nights of Freddy.”

Head O’ Meadow physical education coach Steve “Coach” Dreger took a number of plunges into a dunk tank on November 4 in celebration of the completion of a schoolwide kindness program. School parent Kristopher Plummer (also known as “Chef Plum”) helped organize the program and celebration. He also helped students dunk Coach Dreger a time or two.

Hawley students earned stickers for voting and helping to choose a new school motto on November 7. The final tally of votes named the new school motto as “Be True. Be You. Be Kind.”

The cafeteria at NMS was transformed on November 9 to accommodate the 8-Purple Cluster’s American Red Cross Blood Drive. Thanks to those who participated, 44 pints of blood were donated to the American Red Cross.

Veterans were invited and honored at ceremonies and events across the school district on November 11 for Veterans Day. Schools hosted breakfasts, some students presented handmade gifts to the visitors, and at one school veterans received high fives and thank yous in two schoolwide Walks of Honor.

The NHS Marching Band & Guard earned sixth place on November 12 at the USBands Open Class National Championships at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

From November 17 to 20 NHS students performed in the school’s fall drama adaptation of Julius Caesar, which was staged at Reed, due to the NHS auditorium renovation project. The show was student-directed by seniors Brandon Pavlicek, Jack Palermo, and Trevor Legeret.

Dr Erardi was named the Superintendent of the Year for 2017 at the annual Connecticut Association of Boards of Education/Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CABE/CAPSS) Convention, held at the Mystic Marriott in Groton, November 18.

Andrew San Angelo’s Newtown Middle School 8 Purple cluster homeroom was treated to a surprise lunch on November 23 for collecting the most socks for the school’s “Socktober” drive in October. The whole school collected 816 pairs of socks that were donated to both MACC Charities (Manchester Area Conference of Churches) and the Bridgeport Rescue Mission. Ben Dubow from MACC Charities brought a meal prepared by the MACC Charities culinary chef program for the students as a thank you for the extra effort.

NHS teachers were offered the chance to have classes participate in Hour of Code activities throughout the week of December 5 to 11, in honor of Computer Science Education Week. NHS computer technology teacher Kristin Violette coordinated the activities and students helped give presentations.

Holiday Cheer In Schools

Students at some local schools participated in holiday shops, set up by local PTAs and volunteers. Hawley’s PTA held one on December 9, Middle Gate’s PTA held one on December 8 and 9, and Head O’ Meadow’s PTA held on December 8 and 9 also. At each of the shops students were offered the chance to purchase gifts for the upcoming holidays. For Hawley and Head O’ Meadow the events also served as fundraisers for the PTAs.

As 2016 neared its close, students were performing acts of kindness. A special program for the month at Hawley began with the entire school working to create a piece of art depicting a tree with hands as leaves on its branches. The effort was planned and coordinated by the school’s Kindness Committee. The book Beautiful Hands by Kathryn Otoshi and Bret Baumgarten inspired the tree and more for the kindness program.

Across Reed on December 7 classes and clusters also completed a range of activities for the school’s Day of Kindness. For one cluster, Stephanie Finik and Todd Stentiford’s cluster, the effort continued to December 15, when the cluster took a field trip to Operation Hope in Fairfield to deliver a collection of items to donate to the group and to tour the facility.

Throughout the final week of school in 2016, students were continuing to work toward inspiring others and celebrating school spirit with a number of activities in the schools.

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