Back to school: Hitting the books at TBE, MICMS and MIA

Lance Shearer

Wednesday, the regular annual progression of the seasons brought around that late summer milestone, back to school day.

Elementary, middle school, and high school students on Marco Island joined over 45,000 in Collier County as a whole in starting their new school year. For the kids, this is the significant New Year’s Day, when they become officially a year older and closer to independence and adulthood. For adults, the day holds out hope that autumn will arrive in turn, and eventually the busy winter season on Marco.

All of Marco Island’s public schools, Tommie Barfield Elementary (TBE), the charter high school Marco Island Academy (MIA), and Marco Island Charter Middle School (MICMS), hold the coveted “A” ranking, even though educators protest that testing and grades for schools are no substitute for one-on-one teacher-student interaction and lighting the fire of intellectual discovery in a young mind. MICMS and TBE continue their A status, and MIA earned back their rightful place over the summer.

Brenna White, new to MICMS although an eighth grader, figures out her locker. It was back to school for thousands of schoolchildren in Collier County, and hundreds on Marco Island, as Wednesday marked the beginning of the new school year.

The first day of school is particularly fraught for the youngest children, in Marco Island’s case at TBE, going off to school for perhaps the first time. It can be a time for tears, and not necessarily shed by the students, as parents see their little angels moving beyond the stage where their world centers entirely on home and family.

It can be rough for the siblings left behind at home, too. Leah Rice, 3, teared up in her mother Hallie’s arms, even though the one going to school at TBE was her older brother Connor, 5. Bill and Pegilee Morris were smiling and dry-eyed, sending off three of their numerous brood to TBE.

First day of school marks change for the schools as well as the students. Tommie Barfield has a new principal, Kathryn Maya, although she is not new to the school, having already been in place as assistant principal. Her slot as assistant principal has been assumed by Alyssa Ledbetter, who although she said first day is “kind of a crazy morning,” seemed to have matters well in hand as an overflow crowd of parents escorting their children to opening day surged into the school.

For those arriving by bus, helpful hands belonging to Mary Hopkins and Gladis June wrote bus numbers on the backs of hands for students who weren’t sure which bus they should be boarding that afternoon after dismissal.

Marco Charter Middle has been an A school since before today’s students were born, and principal George Abounader welcomed back the kids with gladness.

“Opening day is so much fun, so exciting,” he said. “During summer, we spend weeks preparing for the school year, but the building is empty. These buildings were meant to have children in them.”

Leah Rice, 3, is tearful in mother Hallie's arms even though it is her brother Connor, 5, going off to kindergarten. It was back to school for thousands of schoolchildren in Collier County, and hundreds on Marco Island, as Wednesday marked the beginning of the new school year.

Abounader showed off the school’s new $17,000 television production studio, replacing their 10-year-old technology, made possible by a grant from the island’s Kiwanis. The children, under the supervision of teacher Margo Heidenrich, were ready to go and aired their first morning show of the school year on Wednesday.

“We need to come up with a catchy name for that,” mused Abounader. Another new project, an organic vertical garden, had its framework set up behind the main building, and ready for the science classes who will fill the receptacles with vegetable and flower plants.

Also new is a high school credit-bearing algebra class for seventh graders. This brings to three the number of high school level classes at the school, and means that next year, they will have four.

At Marco Island Academy, principal Melissa Scott was pleased to regain their A grade, but determined to keep the focus on students, not rankings.

“The State of Florida forces us to look at numbers, numbers, numbers,” she said. “You have to focus on each individual student. That helps you earn success at every level. Students are coming here because they know that here, they’re a person, not a number.”

But speaking of rankings, she did mention MIA has been certified by the state with the “high-performing charter school” distinction, and repeats in the top two percent of high schools nationally, as ranked by the Washington Post.

Confusion on the first day of school had been minimized, said Scott, by the “Rays Roundup,” in which students are encouraged to visit the school during the two weeks prior, to pick up their schedule, see where their classes will be, and figure out any issues.

A word of caution for drivers on Marco Island’s streets came from MIPD Captain Dave Baer, part of a strong law enforcement presence dedicated to keeping the kids safe.

“The first day is always important for traffic,” with young children walking and on bikes on city streets, along with school buses making frequent stops. Officers were at each school, and have been working to tell kids what they can do to avoid being in an accident.

What can you do? Slow down in your car, and keep your eyes on the road and not on your phone.