Springs Is Bursting but It’s Ready

Big changes ahead, but what students may notice most are new teachers
On Friday, Amanda Waleko, a second-grade teacher at the Springs School, readied her classroom for the start of the school year. Carissa Katz

The newly waxed floors glistened in the empty hallways of the Springs School on Friday as a handful of teachers readied classrooms for the start of the school year on Tuesday, when 681 kindergarten through eighth-grade students are expected back on campus, with another 39 set to attend the district’s prekindergarten program at the Eleanor Whitmore Early Childhood Center in East Hampton.

On a tour through the school building, the superintendent, Debra Winter, and principal, Eric Casale, pointed to a green line that runs down the center of the hallways, basically a traffic divider that helps provide a semblance of order when the hallways swell with a crush of students changing classes. 

District voters in March approved a $16.9 million bond to help fund a nearly $23 million expansion and renovation project — with an anticipated completion date of 2021. The expansion will add some 24,000 square feet to the school, while 17,000 square feet will be renovated, but “the day we move in, we’ll be at capacity,” Mr. Casale said. 

Still, the extra space will be welcomed. Over the summer, the district won a $1.33 million New York State grant for a new nitrogen-reducing wastewater treatment system and chose H2M Architects and Engineers to oversee that work, which is to take place next summer, along with initial site work for the addition. The engineers are working with Stony Brook University’s Center for Clean Water Technology on ways to get nitrogen so low that it actually would be “below the drinking water standards,” Mr. Casale said. 

On Friday, Ms. Winter and Mr. Casale pointed out classrooms arranged in ways that might be surprising to someone who hasn’t been inside a school building recently. There are signs of the school’s very pressing space needs: classrooms partitioned into two or three spaces, others with no windows. But there are also glimpses of new directions in education that start with how classrooms are laid out. In some, the teacher has no desk and there is no front or back of the room, a layout that allows for a more fluid style of teaching. 

As administrators geared up on Friday for the start of the academic year, they talked about the progress taking place behind the scenes to bring the big capital improvements to fruition, but also the changes in store when the bell rings on Tuesday. Most obvious among them to students and parents may be new faces at the head of several classrooms and familiar faces in new roles throughout the school.

Over the course of three years, the district has seen a 40-percent turnover in professional staff. Six longtime teachers retired at the end of last year, as did three teaching assistants, together representing a combined total of 220 years on the job. This year, 11 of the 74 members of the teaching staff will be new to the job, but in that number are three who had been working as teaching assistants before being promoted.

In kindergarten, Melissa Erb and Diana Russell will go from teaching assistants to classroom teachers. KelliAnn Toto, who had been a T.A. for English as a new language, will become a first-grade classroom teacher. Kimberly Havlik, a leave-replacement last year, was hired as a new first-grade teacher. 

Also preparing to meet Springs students for the first time next week are new music, science, art, and Spanish teachers, a new special-education teacher, and new first and fourth-grade classroom teachers, as well as a new librarian. 

Megan Payne, a special-education teacher, will head the kindergarten inclusion classroom. Jennilee Santiago is a new fourth-grade teacher and Jessica Rubio joins the district as a Spanish teacher.

Two middle school science teachers, Lisa Seff and Robert Walker, retired at the end of last year. Taking their places will be Eric Schwab, who will teach sixth and eighth-grade science, and Brittny Pannizzo, Ms. Seff’s leave replacement last year, who will teach sixth and seventh-grade science. Angelina Modica, a choral music teacher who had been tenured at the end of last year, has left to take a position elsewhere teaching band, her specialty. Taking her place will be Meghan Kelly, who had been teaching in New Jersey. In addition to teaching, she will take on the fourth-grade opera and the school musical.

Kathleen Comber will take over as librarian, while the former librarian, Bill Hallman, will take over from Ms. Seff as the academic enrichment teacher. That program, meanwhile, will continue to shift its focus toward science, technology, engineering, art, and math, commonly referred to these days as STEAM. 

Lauren Marino will join the staff as an art teacher following the retirement last year of Colleen McGowan. 

At a new-teacher orientation on Monday for those who have been in the district for three years or less, there were 32 staff members. “They’re excited, they’re motivated,” Mr. Casale said on Friday. The theme of the orientation, inspired by a conference that newer staff attended last year, was “getting your teach on.” The textbooks for the day: Dave Burgess’s “Teach Like a Pirate,” subtitled “Increase Student Engagement, Boost Your Creativity, and Transform Your Life as an Educator,” and Hope and Wade King’s “The Wild Card: 7 Steps to an Educator’s Creative Breakthrough.” 

“My philosophy is I want you to take risks. I want you to think outside of the box,” Ms. Winter said. Not every new initiative will work, she acknowledged, but that, too, has value. “We have to demonstrate to children that it’s okay to fail; that’s how you learn.” 

While they are excited by the energy the new instructional staff will bring, Ms. Winter and Mr. Casale are also enthusiastic about some of the social-emotional initiatives the district is taking part in.

These include partnering with the New York State Mentoring Program to pair at-risk students with adult mentors within the school and implementing a social-emotional learning program called Second Step that aims, Mr. Casale said, to “help kids understand their role in conflict resolution,” as well as teach things like self-regulation and situational awareness. “Cooperative learning, problem solving, strong interpersonal skills . . . these are all 21st-century skills,” Mr. Casale said.

By supporting students in areas beyond academics, “we hope to raise student achievement and reduce the suspension rate,” Ms. Winter said. 

On the heels of a “generation of giving students no disappointments,” Ms. Winter said, “these kids, if it doesn’t go their way, they don’t know how to navigate it.” Part of what the school is trying to teach them, Mr. Casale said, is “resiliency.”

It was hoped that recently added programs like robotics would offer an outlet for students who may not be part of team sports, but could still benefit from the experience of being on a team. The goal, Mr. Casale said, was “to have them feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves.” 

And, “If people come to us with ideas for new clubs, we’ll try it,” Ms. Winter said. 

“We want them to have that connection to the school,” the principal added.

“For a small school, Springs has really been very forward-thinking and progressive,” Ms. Winter said. “And the community has stepped up through programs like the visiting artists program,” Mr. Casale added. “These relationships we hope are long lasting.”