Every year since 2009 in the Whitman-Hanson Regional School District, an open house has been held on the day before the first day of the school year to allow elementary and middle school students the chance to meet their teachers and become accustomed to a new classroom and/or building.
This fall, however, plans for the open houses have been complicated by the Maquan School closing in Hanson and how it affects teachers and programs moving to Indian Head and Duval elementary schools, Hanson Middle School and WHRHS, raising concerns among some parents.
Hanson parents’ concerns were raised at a Monday, June 18 building transition update meeting with school officials assuring parents during the Wednesday, June 20 School Committee meeting that they would continue discussing how to handle the issue and pledging to quickly communicate any decision with parents.
Three Hanson residents among a group attending the meeting spoke to the School Committee in favor or keeping the traditional open house.
“As a parent, just having the opportunity to meet the person that they will be spending the next 180 school days with the night before, will ease a lot of anxiety,” one mother said, who has been a teacher required to transfer to a new building. “I also think that there is so much change happening for Hanson — we’re losing an elementary school, we’re losing a principal and gaining a new principal. We’re also gaining a new assistant principal … and new superintendent. There are a lot of changes that are facing families and students in this district and Hanson in particular.”
While she conceded some change is inevitable in life, she said she is not sure so much change at one time is good.
“I think the open house has proven a really effective strategy for handling those first-day jitters, [and] new parents get to meet people in town,” another parent said.
Whitman schools are going ahead with the usual day before the first day of open house because only Duval is affected by transitions stemming from the Maquan closing.
“There was a little rumbling about open house there, as well,” said WHRHS Principal Jeffrey Szymaniak, who takes the helm as superintendent in July. Duval’s open house will, however, take place the night before school starts as usual. Szymaniak said he wanted to meet with new Indian Head Principal Jill Coutreau before making any decisions.
School Committee member Christopher Howard, a Hanson resident with two young children, said he saw two issues at work — a normal open house and this year.
“This is not a normal year,” he said. “I think everyone recognizes there’s lot going on, there might be some 12th-hour things that have to happen this year to do something fantastic, but I am a huge fan of open house the night before.”
He said that, on that night, the focus of parents and children is on school and getting everyone together in that environment is helpful to reduce anxiety and avoid conflict with other activities.
Fellow Hanson School Committee member and parent Robert O’Brien Jr., agreed and asked if there was a way to modify the event.
School Committee Chris Scriven of Whitman, meanwhile, did not see a problem with making accommodation for the unusual circumstances this year.
“I think I might be missing what the concerns are,” he said.
“I think it’s the opportunity to meet the teachers the night before,” Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner said.
She explained that was the reason principals within the district suggested the event nine years ago.
“Principals that brought that forward — [including retired principals] Elaine White and Ellen Stockdale — believed that it was better for students to have an opportunity to see the school right before it started to help with some anxiety the first day of school,” Gilbert-Whitner. “This year, it’s a little bit different because of the changes that are going on.”
Teachers had also expressed questions and concerns about the move through union official Kevin Kavka. Open house, and the pressure of moving classrooms from one building to another or within buildings and not being ready for open house, was among those concerns, Gilbert-Whitner said. An extra day for an open house would mean an extra personal day for teachers, according to their contract.
“Their request was could they possibly move open house to another date,” she said. “They know their rooms have to be ready for the first day of school, but when their rooms are ready for open house, they want the bulletin boards up, they want to give the best possible look to the classroom and, I think there were concerns that it wouldn’t look the way they wanted it to.”
Gilbert-Whitner said she thought the parents already knew that information, and when she learned otherwise she was surprised, but declined to point to anyone as being at fault.
Parents attending the session said the open house was more important as a day to meet teachers than for perfect bulletin boards.
“Nothing is written in stone,” Gilbert-Whitner said. “This is a unique year.”
Szymaniak said alternatives have been looked to, including an opportunity to explore the schools the day before the year starts and an open house at a later date.
Some classrooms at Indian Head won’t be ready until mid-August, he noted. He said the event there could include older students showing the Maquan students around, an ice cream social and a special opening of the new Indian Head playground.
“My priority on [Aug. 27 and 28] and of my teachers is to be prepared for students on that Wednesday and have a ‘Welcome back — Welcome to our new school’ with a lot of energy,” he said.
Szymaniak also offered the opportunity for school walk-throughs for students who have difficulty with change.
New Duval Principal Dr. Darlene Foley, who was also introduced at the School Committee meeting, plans to survey her staff about open house over the summer.
“Darlene is the solidification of our team,” Szymaniak said in making that introduction to the committee. “It’s been a long month and a half or so, with some great candidates, but I think we got the cream of the crop.”
Foley has already been to visit Maquan and Indian Head before the end of the school year to look at the special education programs that are transitioning to Duval.
“I’m really excited to be working at Duval,” she said. “I feel it’s already a very special place and I’ve met terrific people at Duval and at the other two schools and central office and I feel very supported already.”
Gilbert-Whitner said the physical transition of the buildings are continuing and lauded the assistance from town departments.
“We are indebted to the town of Whitman for their dedicated effort in getting on top of this project and what they’ve done as an in-kind contribution,” Gilbert-Whitner said of the work DPW crews are doing on the parent drop-off driveway for the preschool program at WHRHS. “They’ve saved this project an awful lot of money.”