NEW PORT RICHEY — For three weeks, Dawn Applegate worked to turn her classroom into an inviting under-the-sea setting, one that would make students excited about starting third-grade at Cotee River Elementary School.
The classroom environment goes a long way in setting the tone, Applegate figured.
"If kids are engaged in their learning environment, it makes for engagement in the curriculum," she said. "Third grade is a make-it or break-it year. Especially with reading. I believe that if you can get a kid to love the process of learning in third grade, they’ll be successful for the rest of their school years."
So Applegate put her all into it, doing her best to top last year’s jungle theme. She created a coral reef reading area using cut up pool noodles and colored coffee filters. She set up a calming area complete with a tent and soothing toys, so students have a place when they need to decompress. She grouped student desks into teams representing creatures of the ocean — whales, lobsters, dolphins — making sure to mix students of varied skills to promote cooperative learning. She added to that a fish called Nemo that would serve as the classroom pet and mascot, and help break the ice when it came to making acquaintances.
"It’s my happy place," Applegate said, as she awaited for students on Thursday for county-wide elementary orientation day. The first stop for students and parents was the cafeteria, to fill out paperwork, pay fees and get information on school services. Then they made their way to the classrooms.
"Oh, goodie, they’re starting to arrive," Applegate said, clapping her hands as Ryleigh Allessandro, 8, made a timid entrance into the classroom with her mom, Kristi, and siblings Braelynn, 4, and Kaden, 7.
Ryleigh was the first to get a tour of her new classroom and learn about the expectations and activities to come.
Third grade, said Applegate, "is the year for chapter books. And you get to learn cursive."
"I love the classroom," Ryleigh said, as she ran her fingers over a row of books. "I love that it has a lot of books. I love chapter books."
The 2018-2019 school year is a milestone for Cotee River Elementary. The school is celebrating 25 years of serving a diverse population of students, said principal Sharon Slusser, adding that she is expecting about 680 students on Monday.
"We always have a large turnout (for orientation day). It’s always exciting to see our families — and meet our new students, too," Slusser said, as she roamed amid the bustle of the cafeteria, greeting families, hugging students and snapping pictures on her cell phone.
"This is a huge year for us,’ she said noting the return of a gifted inclusion program, which compliments the well-established Access Curriculum program for students with special needs. Cotee River, which receives Title 1 funding because of the high percentage of low income students, also will continue the Harmony Project, which helps identify trauma and care, Slusser said. Cotee River was one of six schools to pilot the program during the last school year..
"We’re so diverse, and because we are so diverse it, stretches us to meet the needs of all students," Slusser said. "Our focus is on abilities versus disabilities."
Contact Michele Miller at [email protected] Follow at MicheleMiller52