One Collier school heads back to class today -- two weeks before the others

Six-year-old Dylan Alfalro does exercises with gym teacher Kiki Chesterton, right, and his fellow first-graders on the first day of school at Immokalee Community School on Monday, August, 8, 2011. David Albers/Staff

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Six-year-old Dylan Alfalro does exercises with gym teacher Kiki Chesterton, right, and his fellow first-graders on the first day of school at Immokalee Community School on Monday, August, 8, 2011. David Albers/Staff

— The torrential downpours didn’t put a damper on the first day of school for 238 students at Immokalee Community School.

The Collier County charter school brought the kindergarten through eighth grade students back to the classroom two weeks earlier than the regular public schools to give the students a jump start on their education.

Though siblings and friends may have two more weeks of summer left, the students were all smiles in their rain splattered navy-blue collared shirts and khaki pants.

“I’m just so happy to see my friends again, that’s really the only reason I wanted to come back,” said sixth-grader Stephanie Vargas.

The school caters to mostly children of immigrant and migrant parents and elevated from an F to a C school in just one year.

Director of Charter Schools Maria Jimenez said this improvement is mostly a result of Principal James McDevitt, who is starting his second year at Immokalee.

“I think this is a matter of success greeting success,” said McDevitt on the student’s excitement about starting school.

McDevitt hopes the additional two weeks of instruction will help students and parents set early goals and really “bring the fire.”

To him, it’s all about practice -- giving students more time to learn vocabulary, do math problems and to even maintain and excel in their native Spanish language so that come time for the FCAT, students will be comfortable and prepared.

“I have a basic belief system for kids to be successful, they need more time to practice, it gives our kids time to catch up, or I like to think of it as ‘not falling behind,’” McDevitt said.

The goal for the first day is for each student to make or do something that can be displayed on the refrigerator.

“We want to send a positive message about how school should be,” Jimenez said.

Sixth-grader Marlena Gutierrez boldly admitted that this year she needed to try harder even if she was nervous about the challenges ahead.

“I feel scared,” she said, “because last year I didn’t do very well so I need to get good grades this year.”

Gutierrez said she’s going to “pay attention and listen more closely to the teacher.”

She wasn’t the only one intimidated by the start of a new year.

Kindergartners and their parents wore wide-eyed expressions as they walked hand-in-hand to classrooms. But as the young children found their names on desks and got settled into their seats, teachers effortlessly ushered parents out of the classrooms so that instruction could begin.

“If you would like to check in to see how your son or daughter is doing throughout the day, you are more than welcome to call the office,” said kindergarten teacher Olga Gutierrez.

Jimenez and McDevitt said one of the school’s primary focuses is to build a deliberate partnership with the parents.

“The parents want to help but just don’t know how,” he said. “Accomplishing their hopes and dreams for their child starts right now, not in high school.”

Teachers will hold three goal setting conferences with parents throughout the year. McDevitt said the conferences will help parents understand where their child is academically and how to challenge their child so that he or she can reach the appropriate FCAT score.

Even without teachers bringing it up, the pressure of the FCAT weighs heavily on students’ minds.

Third-grade teacher Melissa Garcia asked: “Why do you pay attention in class?”

“So that we can do well on the FCAT,” shouted out a young girl.

It wasn’t the answer Garcia was expecting but she laughed and said that, “Yes, I guess that is a reason to pay attention.”

With two additional weeks of class, greater parental involvement and a more aligned curriculum, Immokalee Community School hopes FCAT scores will continue to climb. And that maybe for the second year in a row, the school will jump two letter grades -- this time to an A.

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