Smyrna schools serve up annual ‘back to school’ breakfast

SMYRNA — Today, Friday and next week, Delaware’s students will be headed back to class.

But, back to school day has already come for the state’s nearly 20,000 teachers and staff members employed by the Department of Education.

To get amped up for the new school year, hundreds of Smyrna School District employees and administrators rallied on Wednesday morning for their annual Welcome Back Breakfast at Smyrna High School.

The well-attended event drew legislators, Clayton and Smyrna mayors, and many other public officials including Gov. John Carney.

For those who’ve attended the annual breakfasts in recent years, one notable change jumped out: the absence of long-time Smyrna School District Superintendent Deborah Wicks. After a 40-year career with the district, Ms. Wicks retired on June 1 and was replaced by Patrik Williams. Mr. Williams stepped up from his position as assistant superintendent — a post he’d served for seven years.

The majority of Smyrna School District’s almost 700 staff members met at Smyrna High School on Wednesday for their annual back to school breakfast. The gathering drew legislators, Clayton and Smyrna mayors, and many other public officials including Gov. John Carney. During the event, the district also noted 112 new hires, transfers or promotions among their teachers, paraprofessionals and other staff. (Submitted photos)

“Just so we can say what everyone is thinking, it was quite odd today to walk though the door and not see former ‘Eagle One’ in her gray business suit with her hair immaculately pulled back, color coordinated barrette, earrings and bangles, right?” Mr. Williams joked, addressing staff at the breakfast. “What’s wonderful about this opportunity though is that it demonstrates what we’ve learned from Ms. Wicks. It’s the ultimate compliment that we’re able to carry on with the message she reinforced over 19 years as our leader.”

A program Ms. Wicks laid out during her first year as superintendent was to celebrate one of five rotating core “values” each year: integrity, compassion, perseverance, respect or responsibility. The 2017-2018 school year will be centered on ‘compassion,’ which several speakers at the breakfast highlighted.
District teacher of the year and eighth grade math teacher at Smyrna Middle School, Denise Boyles, noted in her speech that there are opportunities for compassion and “inclusion” in all employees’ lives, both personal and professional.

“I started working with children with different abilities in 2006, but three years ago, my husband and I also welcomed a beautiful baby boy to our family that just so happens to have hazel eyes, light brown hair and an extra chromosome,” she said. “I was always genuine about teaching students with exceptional needs from a career standpoint, but now my mindset includes a personal perspective as a parent advocate. We shouldn’t forget that school is not entirely about academics, it’s a place for learning life’s early lessons. Life is about inclusion, acceptance and love. Including everyone is necessary, purposeful and it’s just the right thing to do.”

Mr. Williams even made a call to staff to be cognizant of how events on a national scale effect the small community microcosm of Smyrna School District. He said that from school bus drivers and cafeteria staff to teachers and counselors, all should be concerned with setting a compassionate example for the district’s students.

“We need to setting an example of tolerance,” he said. “Right now our nation is experiencing a divisiveness spawned by individuals who feel emboldened by the current national climate. As various fringe groups emerge to espouse doctrines of separatism, exclusion, intolerance and degradation, each of our schools, our entire district and our community must continue to stand firm against any force that sets an immoral example for our children.”

Taking the opportunity to thank the district’s employees for their work and dedication, Gov. Carney reaffirmed the level of importance his office places on teachers.

“We’ve been doing a tour visiting businesses across our state and assessing the business climate — we have tremendous opportunities coming up for young people and we want to build on that whether you’re on a farm, a high tech manufacturing facility or doing research at a university,” he said. “The key is that the requirements for those jobs are higher than they’ve ever been before so all of your jobs in education will be harder than ever as well, and even more important. That’s why I need to impress upon you how important the work is that all of you do is from pre-school to high school.”

During the portion of the breakfast where administrators from all eight schools in the district and the various departments came up to announce new hires, transfers and promotions, 112 teachers, paraprofessionals and other staff were mentioned. As recently as May, principals were preparing to lose staff if state budget negotiations for FY 2018 cut into the district’s funding. Clayton Intermediate School principal David Paltrineri thanked legislators and administration for keeping staff levels on the rise.

“Since this is a time for thank yous, I’d like to mention that last May all the administrators were told that we might lose about 5 staff each, we were told that we might be out funding and it may be a problem,” he said. “But, the behind-the-scenes work of the Governor, legislators and Mr. Williams helped keep us in good shape. We actually have new staff and no one lost their jobs!”

According to Department of Education (2016-2017) records, Smyrna School District serves 5,382 students with 687 staff members. The district spends an average of $11,871 per student — lower than the county ($12,546) and state ($13,610) averages.

Many of the staff members were excited to shake off the summer cobwebs and get back to work. Of course some, like Janet Jarrell, head of Special Education Department, spent a good portion of the summer working anyway.

“I spent most of my summer auditing files,” she said with a smile. “I did get to briefly go down to Savannah, Georgia during the summer to see my daughter who’s going to school down there. Either way, I’m excited to get back in the swing of things though — It’s going to be a great school year.”

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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