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FIRST-DAY IMPRESSIONS

Teachers, staff and administrators gear up to make sure the first day of school and the rest of the year get off on the right foot.

Joy Zarro's Citrus High School special education classroom has a nice smell. A hint of peppermint suspended in the air makes the room feel warm and pleasant.

Clara Luttrell's Hernando Elementary School's first-grade classroom has a clean, crisp, colorful look to it. It looks fun. Luttrell wants her room to be comfortable and inviting.

"I get dizzy with all the busy," she said.

Greg Biance's Inverness Middle School science classroom is full of neat stuff: a kangaroo skin, a shark, caribou antlers, jaws and a lot of bones. One wall unit holds 16 aquariums the students will use to set up different ecosystems.

Classroom decoration, cafeteria pantry stocking, lesson planning, organization and maintenance have been going on in earnest in the county's schools as teachers, administrators and staff members prepared for this first week and the rest of the school year.

Gail Stahl, cafeteria manager at Citrus High School, said she's been getting ready for the onslaught of eaters by ordering "lots of food." There is a difference in the volume of food needed between high schools and those with younger populations. When her teenage students come back to school, "they're hungry," she said.

And apparently school pizza is different from other pizza and her students really miss it because "they're anxious for pizza that they haven't had all summer, and french fries," she said.

Back in Zarro's classroom, students who sniff the peppermint-tinged air will also relax to the strains of soft, classical music.

"I like to create a good learning environment for the first day, that first impression," she said. "And I like to incorporate the five senses (or) as many as possible."

The second-year teacher also tells the students how it is when they're in her class.

"I want the students to know my expectations," Zarro said. "And I'm not their friend. I'm their teacher. I show respect. I expect respect."

Kevin Bingham, a chemistry and college biology teacher at Citrus High, deals with all the motivated students who are in his classes because they want to be there. But, he remembers they are still kids and says, "My typical approach is to come in like a lion and hopefully go out like a lamb."

Bingham seats his students according to seating charts, and while they're working this first week, he is looking at the chart and memorizing names.

"Putting the names with the faces," he said. "Putting the names with the faces."

Ellie Esler, a veteran teacher at CHS beginning her 27th year, is tough with her students at first, too.

"I do it every year. It's become automatic after all this time," she said. "I start out with the attitude that I rule this classroom, my rules, my word go, but I loosen up as the year progresses. We never get away from that. We're still working within my boundaries."

At IMS, Biance says he begins the year in a structured way, too, but he's entertaining as well. He likes to do a little magic trick to test his new students' observation skills. And he lets the students explore.

"The room is interesting so I allow them to get up and look around. You have to experience science," Biance said.

At Lecanto Middle School, Macintosh computer lab teacher Jim Manos relies on his 26 years of experience to handle the first day.

"You've got to be prepared," he said. "You've got to be prepared for every possible scenario, not just in the curriculum area. We have the perennial questions: "Where are the bathrooms? Where do I get my lunch ticket? How do I try out for basketball? What time is my bus picking me up? What is my bus number?'

"That's where the experience comes in, whatever cuts down on some of the anxiety. You just take one thing at a time. If they see anxiety in you, it's going to drip over. If they see confidence in you, they're more comfortable."

Pat Cooper, a special education teacher at Hernando Elementary School, uses the first day to help her students become familiar with their schedules.

"It's a matter," she said, "of walking them through the first day and getting them used to being here."

Cooper's principal, Carol Mainor, has to look at the big picture for getting the school cleaned and ready, organizing and anticipating returning teachers' needs.

"It takes all summer to get ready for the first day. Preparing for that first day really sets the mood for the whole school year."

During the week of planning, she says they work on the climate of welcome back. "We want you here," is the message she wants the little ones to receive.

The opening of school is an extremely busy and stressful time of year, she said, and laughter is important, "but it's really one of the most exciting. The energy level is incredible. We really can't wait until those kids come back. The school comes alive when the kids come back in."

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