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Ready or Not, It’s School : School Employees Prepare for the Annual Onslaught

The thought of more than 111,000 students returning to Ventura County schools next week may conjure up images straight out of “Gremlins” or “Goonies,” accompanied by horror-movie-style, tight-throated panic.

But for county teachers, bus drivers, school psychologists and cafeteria workers, students inspire entirely different sorts of feelings. In fact, most school employees--for all their experience in the trenches opposite the incoming hordes and in spite of their worries over the recent cuts in state and federal school budgets--seem ready to start the year in a spirit of openness and optimism. “The first day is the most exciting day of the year,” said Virginia Rasch, who has taught at Mira Monte Elementary School in the Ojai Valley for 26 years. “Everybody’s hopes and dreams are right there on the surface.”

Psychologist: ‘It’s really a time of renewal. Everything is possible in September.’

Richard Jenkins, a school psychologist in the Moorpark Unified School District, says that school employees tend to see the beginning of school in much the same way students do: Having been thrilled to get away for the summer, they’re glad to be back.

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“It’s really a time of renewal,” he said. “Everything is possible in September. Teachers generally have really high expectations and they feel that they’ll be able to give good experience to the children.”

As do bus drivers. Jeanie Telford, who drives for the single-school Mesa Union District in Somis, says that memories of bad times dissolve over the summer, while excitement about the coming year grows more and more intense. “I can’t wait to see my kids again,” she said. “I have washed my bus, cleaned the inside, and I am ready to go.”

After 20 years of teaching at Ventura High School, Dave Schmitt still finds himself getting swept up in the back-to-school excitement and idealism. “This time of year you start new and you have new ideas and you hope you can put them into place,” he said.

If teachers and even some bus drivers view the first week of September with a kind of idealistic longing, cafeteria workers can be excused for being somewhat less high-minded. After all, feeding the student body is a less romantic undertaking than feeding the student mind.

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“It’s a very hectic and crazy time,” said Beverly Henry, cafeteria manager at Ventura High School. “We have cashiers learning new prices, and the new students don’t know how the system works. Things usually go pretty smoothly, but some kids get anxious because they have a very short time for lunch.”

Food Service Director: ‘It has been particularly hard to take the lack of cheese.’

Indeed, it’s a time of adjustment for everyone involved. At the Conejo Valley Unified School District, for example, last-minute staffing problems have added more stress to the operation. “I’ve just found out we’re short 12 employees,” said Ruth Roberts, food service director for the district. “Because there are so many short-hour positions, we face this problem every year. It’s hard to fill all the 2-, 2 1/2- and 3-hour positions.”

These are minor concerns compared to the effect that tightening state and federal school budgets will have on food programs. With drastic cuts in USDA commodities for county schools, individual districts are obligated to bid for such staples as milk, bread and produce. This is not only an administrative burden at the district level, but also puts pressure on individual cafeteria managers, who must get used to dealing with a shifting array of new companies and to making do with less.

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“Budget cuts definitely affect the mood of food service workers,” Roberts said. “It has been particularly hard to take the lack of cheese. You know, our favorite food is pizza, so the lack of cheese really puts a strain on things.”

The strain may get worse. Kevin Dando, government affairs specialist for the American School Food Service Assn. in Alexandria, Va., says his organization is in a state of alert. “We’re now looking at $500 million of proposed cuts for child nutrition programs,” he said. “About half of that is for school lunches. Now, with the situation going on in the Mideast, the budget is in a state of turmoil. We’ll have to be even more vigilant in terms of our programs.”

Cafeteria workers are not the only school employees feeling the budget pinch. In some county school districts, busing has been eliminated. In others, school nurses and librarians have been let go. Such cuts can threaten to make a teacher’s late-summer optimism come crashing down.

Teacher: ‘I’m wondering how it’s going to affect the kids not to have a full-time librarian.’

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Steve Castro, a math and Spanish teacher at Sequoia Junior High School in Simi, says that he maintains his positive attitude in spite of the depressing fiscal realities, but it’s getting harder to do. “My apprehensions at this time of year have nothing to do with the kids or with the school,” he said. “It really has to do with the state’s perception of what we need in order to do our jobs. For example, the library is such an integral part of learning. So I’m wondering how it’s going to affect the kids not to have a full-time librarian.”

At neighboring Hillside Junior High School, hours have been changed to accommodate life without buses. This has made August more hectic than usual for school secretary Virginia Galazin, who has had to field 30 to 40 calls a day from parents who want to know the new hours. But Galazin isn’t letting the situation get her down. In fact, she sees a bright side to it.

“The kids will be getting here earlier now, and I think that’s going to be good,” she said. “We had an earlier starting schedule once before, and we had less tardiness then.”

Schmitt of Ventura High School speaks for many county teachers when he says that he’ll start the school year well aware of the fiscal situation, but determined not to let it affect his attitude toward school. “It really does hurt,” he said, “it hurts a lot. But we have to do the best we can and hopefully somewhere down the line these things will get taken care of.”

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With the stage nearly set and the curtain ready to go up on a new school year, those most likely to have opening day jitters are, of course, new people--students, teachers and administrators alike. For them, the future is full of question marks and uncertainties about roles and expectations, as well as the minor insecurities that cloud any new undertaking.

Principal: ‘I don’t underestimate this job for a second.’

As the new principal of the Topa Topa Elementary School in Ojai, Sergio Robles views opening day as a momentous event. “I don’t underestimate this job for a second,” he said. “The responsibility for the welfare of almost 600 kids for most of the day is an awesome one and I really take it seriously.”

With all the changes that have rocked society and affected children in recent years, would today’s back-to-school ritual be recognizable to members of, say, the Ozzie and Harriet generation? Surprisingly, the answer seems to be yes. If there is one aspect of school life that has stayed the same in spite of radical social change, it is opening day.

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“It’s more similar than it is different from when I was in high school,” said Schmitt, who graduated from Ventura High School in 1961 before going on to teach there. “Everything is new during that first week and there is a lot more positive feeling going on. There’s a lot of boy meets girl and girl meets boy, just like there always was. It’s a time that really takes me back. It seems just like yesterday.”

For Rasch of Mira Monte Elementary School, the first day of school is unlike any other. “On every other day of the year, you see evidence of the changes out in the world,” she said, “but not on the first day. Then, the happies and sads and the willie-wobblies override everything else and it’s the same as it ever was. On the first day, you’ve got it all.”


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