First day of school starts with a full house, new faces and a (not so) surprising mask announcement from Lee County

August 13, 2021
By Marcy Shortuse

On Tuesday, Aug. 10 the classrooms at The Island School were once again ringing with the sounds of the voices of teachers and children as the first day of school began. Parents of the students stood in the parking lots and on the lawn, making sure everything was a go, and eventually left the children and staff to begin the day.

School year 2021/22 started with a full roster of students, with more on the waiting list. They also started with a new head-of-school, Christine Oliver. Thompson, who has served the school for nine years, has been working closely with Oliver since June, when the transition was announced. Oliver has been teaching elementary and middle school children for 23 years, and began her teaching career with Sarasota County Schools in 1998. For the past six years Oliver has been an assistant principal at the elementary and middle school levels.

Thompson has no intention of completely cutting ties with the school, and intends to remain a familiar face in the classrooms.

First graders also have a new teacher this year, Kate Costigan. She has recently been in the position of behavior specialist at her previous school in Sarasota County, and also taught primary grades. She has an ESE background with 18 years of experience.

Stephanie Shirback is now the second grade teacher, and Rebecca Blalock is teaching third and fourth grade math and science. Megan O’Connor will continue to teach kindergarten and Dorothy Rahal will teach third and fourth grade ELA. Jane Bengston, Lisa Brown (ELA/social studies) and Donna Catanzarite (science) will teach fifth grade.

This school year The Island School will be implementing the Florida B.E.S.T. – Benchmarks for Excellent Student Thinking – standards for ELA during the 21-22 school year for grades K-2. Oliver said they will also be adding the Florida B.E.S.T. standards for math grades kindergarten through fifth and ELA grades third through fifth during the 2022-23 school year.

The B.E.S.T. program took the place of the Common Core method of teaching under Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration. The goals are to bring education back to basics by putting a strong emphasis on language, reading, writing, math and civics. This concept was also created to allow a clear and definitive framework between the school and parents, without the worries of conceptual confusion.

“The Island School will continue to utilize the current programs to meet these standards,” Oliver said. “The Island School has also added the CHAMPS (Conversation, Help, Activity, Movement, Participation, Success) program, which is a proactive and positive approach to classroom management. The practical strategies presented in CHAMPS will help teachers to promote responsible student behavior.”

Just hours before the new school year began, Lee County School District officials announced that they would require face coverings for students, teachers and staff in light of a rise in COVID cases, but Oliver said it wasn’t really a surprise and they were prepared to handle the situation.

“The School District of Lee County will require face coverings as a mitigation measure as we begin the 2021-22 school year, while respecting parents’ fundamental rights to direct the health care decisions of their child, by allowing them to opt their child out of wearing a face covering or mask,” Oliver said. “We were not surprised by the district’s decision, and we were prepared to act accordingly by having the opt-out forms available for all parents who requested them on the first day of school. An email was sent out to all parents by the Head of School the morning that Lee County Schools made the announcement. We have become very good at adapting to ever-changing guidelines. Handling situations with very short notice is now part of our everyday world.”

Oliver said a majority of parents signed the “opt-out” form.

Lunch will be held indoors this year, in comparison to last year’s outdoor setting, and recesses will go on as usual. Like last year, parents will drop their children off at their individual external classroom doors, but there will be no temperature checks.

“We knew we would not be able to flip a switch this year and completely return to old routines,” Oliver said. “Our number one goal since the pandemic started was to keep students, families, staff and the community safe, while providing in-school learning. We were very successful last year. This summer we examined all of our protocols to determine where we could ease up. We decided to keep students coming in and out of their individual classroom doors. This is also helpful since we have Farish Hall set up as a classroom: We needed an additional space for some small-group learning so we can continue to best meet students’ needs. We are not taking temperatures each morning, but we are still strongly encouraging parents to keep students home when they are not feeling well. We will continue with regular hand washing. While we are still trying not to have large adult gatherings inside, we also recognize the need for students to be able to socialize. While the whole school will not be eating together again, we decided to have grades K-2 and 3-5 eat together in the multipurpose room and have recess together outside.

Remote learning is currently not an option for the 2021-2022 school year directly through The Island School, but online learning through Charlotte County and the State of Florida is still available, as it always has been.

Both Thompson and Oliver were very happy in July when they received the results from (FSA) state testing for Island School students. The results showed that The Island School performed above both Lee County and the state in every category for the percentage of students at proficiency in English language arts/reading, mathematics and science.

The teachers had a nice surprise that included school supply baskets on the first day, thanks to Paradise Exclusive and TIS parent Jim Benson. The local business also provided breakfast to the entire staff from Sassy Tarts Bakery in Rotonda during the week preceding the start of school

 “We are going to have a great year!” Thompson said. “We are ready to support students and families so they can thrive!” 

 Oliver seemed overwhelmed by the support and happiness she witnessed on the first day of school … from the students, the staff and the parents.

“The first day of school was amazing at The Island School,” she said. “I was in every classroom, and I loved seeing the smiles and hearing the excitement of our students. As an administrator, today is one of the best first days I have ever had! Parents were welcoming, children were happy to be here and teachers were eager to have students back in the classroom. I saw students enjoying first-day activities, making animal masks and hats, writing about their first-day jitters, setting goals for the new school year, solving STEM puzzles, meeting class pets, developing a growth mindset and making ‘All About Me’ projects.

“Wow! This year will be a great one.”