This Year, It's Up, Up And Away At Orleans Elementary

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Education , Nauset Regional School District

Mrs. Murray's kindergarten students gather round for a lesson.  ED MARONEY PHOTO

ORLEANS In comic books, secret identities are, well, secret. You're not supposed to let anyone know that you have super powers.

This year, Orleans Elementary School has upended that expectation. From the moment kindergarten to fifth grade students walked through the doors last week, they have been encouraged to express their own super powers.

Don't expect to see kindergartners flying faster than locomotives, or fifth graders bending steel in their bare hands. We're talking about students with real-life super powers: super counters, super listeners, super friends.

“We connect with kids (through) what interests them,” Principal Elaine Pender said as she gave a tour of the 220-student school Monday. The superhero theme, created by reading specialist Martha Jenkins, is repeated on posters that celebrate character traits such as self-discipline, honesty, and perseverance.

“With great books come great adventures” is another slogan in the OES hallways, a reminder that learning opens the doors to a well-rounded life. The school is infused with opportunities for learning and expression. “Art is a huge part of our culture,” Pender said.

In the cafeteria, graced by local artist David Bailey's giant veggies, Jenkins will soon begin a read-aloud session at breakfast. Down the hall, gym teacher Jeff Schwab is putting up students' responses to his invitation to write what comes to mind when they see the word “attitude”; one wrote, “A positive attitude creates a chain reaction of positive thoughts.”

Keeping things positive while allowing the children to deal with their concerns is a priority. Outside the first grade classrooms, you can read their responses to the prompt “What makes you worry?” Answers range from “getting lost” to “the fox at our house is going to eat me.”

In one first grade classroom, a quartet of students learns how to log on to a computer. These little learners will have both handwriting and typing lessons next year. Elsewhere in the room, encouraging signs are displayed, such as “My work effort helps me learn.” It's a reminder not to give up when a hard problem is encountered.

OES offers more than encouraging words, of course. Reading and math specialists are on hand to help students who hit snags in their learning curve, building their skills and confidence.

“Everyone who works in the school treats the students like they treat their own children,” Pender said. “It's like a family in many ways.”

As in a family, “each grade has a role and responsibility,” said Pender, based on the belief that “we all have something to give to it.” There are lots of programs in which older children work with younger students, serving as role models.

There are two favorite places where all the grades come together: the library and the playground. In the former, groups gather to work on projects, sit quietly to read, or learn basic reference skills (there's online access to the Encyclopedia Britannica). Outside, learning continues as students grow asparagus, carry watermelon rinds and such to their compost pile, and plant seeds from the gardens at Plimoth Plantation. A large play area, built by the school's families, offers plenty of climbing, swinging, and sliding opportunities. There's even a “clam shack” that would be good training for future Liam's employees. Last week, OES hosted a back-to-school BBQ attended by 300 and serenaded by a steel drummer.

The combination of work and play, of learning and expression, makes OES a happy destination for its students. For some, solving problems in the classroom is a relief from tackling more intractable situations at home. “Children are coming in with a lot more challenges,” Pender said. “We're becoming a trauma-sensitive school.”

With students in their seats by 7:45 p.m. and out the door at 2 p.m., “there aren't enough hours in the day,” Pender said. She'd like to expand opportunities for after-school activities (a long-running program is separate from the school but housed there), and lauds the parent-teacher council for its fall and spring programs that range from ukulele lessons to felting to yoga.

The school's unique Spanish program just welcomed native speaker Laura Serna, who brought her children up in Mexico. OES grades 1 through 5 have weekly lessons in what Pender describes as “a tiny bit of global awareness.” The principal said Serna told her that children in Mexico are “fully immersed in English,” reading and writing in that language before Spanish.

Pender credits “the amazing staff” for making OES a warm and exciting place to be, citing above-and-beyond efforts by teachers on behalf of their students. It sounds as if the faculty offers good role models for youngsters looking to define their own super powers.