Despite an enrollment of 2,470, Oak Ridge students experienced personal attention as they arrived for their first day of school Thursday. This warm welcome reflected the Respect for All program new Principal Paul Burke said will be at the core of the school’s culture for a second year.
When students exited cars or first stepped foot on campus they were enveloped in a human tunnel of enthusiastic Link Crew members, dozens of student leaders in green shirts who act as the welcoming committee for Oak Ridge. During the summer they swapped phone numbers and promised to check in with assigned students for the duration of the year.
Large groups gathered to watch the ongoing construction of the gym expansion, yet not having the gym available added to the smaller community feel. Earlier in the week four rotating groups of freshmen attended orientation in the school’s theater. And in lieu of the traditional first day of school assembly, third period teachers showed classes the first video in a yearlong series of activities to promote the school’s message that all are welcome.
This year’s theme is Everyone Has a Story. What’s Yours? A monthly lesson during third period will range from race, socioeconomic status, sexual identity and gender. In addition, the school’s Art and Media Club set up a website called theasterisk.net where students and staff may sign on to share their stories.
Among new stories to be told, new faces of leadership welcomed students back to campus. Vice principal Lindsey Kovach replaces Pam Bartlett who, along with former principal Steve Wehr, took a position at the district level. Kovach comes to Oak Ridge from Ponderosa.
Burke was hired to replace Wehr last spring after serving as principal for three years at Samuel Jackson Middle School in South Sacramento. In his three years on the job Burke was credited with improving the middle school’s culture both behaviorally and academically. According to Elk Grove Unified School District Communications Director Beth Graswich, expulsions at Samuel Jackson plummeted 85 percent since Burke arrived in 2010 and their API score spiked 46 points during the same period.
The El Dorado Hills resident and father of three, including eldest son Keith Walisa, a senior at Oak Ridge, said the jump from middle school to Oak Ridge hasn’t been as big a step as people may think.
“At both schools there is an intensity and a focus on academic achievement,” he said. “And being back at high school is comfortable because it’s where I started my career.”
Burke, 39, was a high school business and computer teacher in the Elk Grove Unified School District before going into administration.
His first impression of Oak Ridge is the quality of the staff. “There is tremendous professional pride here,” he said. “The staff is so hardworking, dedicated and talented.”
Burke is excited about the year ahead, which will feature a pilot blended-learning program that will bring 144 Samsung Galaxy Note tablets to students across four core content areas — English, history, math and science.
“The purpose of this pilot program is to blend the use of technologically engaging hands-on project based learning with more traditional methods of instruction,” Burke explained. “We are very excited to again be pushing the educational technology envelope.”
The Oak Ridge High School Foundation purchased the tablets. In all, 600 students will take part.
There will also be a focus on implementing the common core, Burke added, and a continued emphasis on the school’s capital improvement campaign. Besides the new athletic facility, Burke said students and families will enjoy other near-future improvements, including a new baseball backstop.
“Our long-term, pipe dream is to completely re-do the baseball stadium,” he said.
Some things remained the same on the first day of school, however. New shoes gleamed and unscathed backpacks dangled on the shoulders of most. Freshmen milled about with their schedules out, overheard asking questions like, “Do you know where the P building is?”
Counselor Glen Swedelson greeted students outside the counseling office just as he has every year on the first day of Oak Ridge since 1982.
“Even with 400 schedule adjustments since summer, today has gone incredibly smooth,” Swedelson said. “This is a very large school and it’s like a huge puzzle getting the schedules right. Sometimes we can’t solve everything, but it’s our job to help students settle in.”
Once schedules are settled, Swedelson said the counselors are there to provide broader assistance to students and the challenges teens face.
“We are here to help,” he concluded. “Even though we don’t always do what the students want, we listen and we are their advocates.”