Stafford Elementary School welcomes new families

By Annie Gentile - ReminderNews
Stafford - posted Wed., Aug. 21, 2013
Stafford Elementary School Principal Hank Skala (far right) points out the order
Stafford Elementary School Principal Hank Skala (far right) points out the orderly process for dropping off and picking up students. Photos by Annie Gentile.

Over the course of the summer, new families have moved into the Stafford school district, this year coming from as nearby as East Windsor and as far away as El Paso, Texas. Yet, no matter the distance their families have traveled, for the children it means getting used to a new school, new classmates, new teachers and new routines.

Each year - for just this reason - Stafford Elementary School Principal Hank Skala holds an annual orientation session for parents and their second- to fifth-grade children who will be new to the school. First-graders already in the district go through an orientation and visit to Stafford Elementary near the end of the previous school year. The orientation for families brand new to the district was held on Friday morning, Aug. 16, with the first day of school approaching on Wednesday, Aug. 28.

“We have about 500 students and about 45 teachers here, but even though it’s a very big school, we try to be like a family. I try to know every child by name,” said Skala. This year, Skala said, they are welcoming about 12 new families, many of whom attended the orientation as he took them through the school to see where the children will attend class, eat lunch, gather for assemblies, enjoy recess and attend a number of special classes, including physical education, art, music, health and a library/computer lab.

Skala said class sizes at Stafford Elementary School are generally about 18 to 20 in grades two through four and about 23 or 24 in grade five. “We’ve done our homework and have found that surrounding towns have up to 24 and 25 students in the lower grades. I’ve found this town is supportive of making sure that as children make their entry journey into school, they have smaller class sizes,” he said.

Skala also walked parents and their children through the routine for drop-off and pick-up of students, demonstrating the orderly routine and safety procedures.

“This is our seventh year here.  We’ve got it down to a science how it works. Everyone enters through the main entrance for security reasons and kids go to their classrooms right away,” Skala said, pointing out the drop-off loop for buses and for parents who transport their children by car. Duty staff help ensure an orderly process where students get off the bus in the morning and go in the right direction to their classes, and get on the correct bus when heading home.

Skala said the school has initiated several positive incentive programs to help children learn to behave appropriately. In the school’s “Hall of Fame,” each class has its own “Wall of Fame” where students are recognized for positive behaviors and achievements.

As a relatively newer school, Stafford Elementary was built with a number of safety features, such as automatically locked doors with a buzzer that require office staff to unlock the doors to allow entry. Skala said before the incident at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, he found sometimes people would be a little grumpy about the strict safety features, but now they thank staff for going the extra distance.

“We had a group from Homeland Security for the state visit the school in February or early March and they conducted an interview and talked to us about our safety practices and emergency procedures,” said Skala, adding that they were impressed with what they found, particularly with a handout they had prepared for new families about the school and for training provided to substitute teachers. Skala said that when you have good systems in place as they do at Stafford Elementary, it goes a long way in making the practices doable, and in earning the trust of families. “It’s important for parents to feel that we are being vigilant,” he said.

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