Peabody schools off to a smooth start, officials say

Higgins Middle School Principal Todd Bucey, back row, left, has been an educator at the school, including in the old and new buildings, for 25 years. On the first day of school Tuesday, he stands with some seventh-grade students, front row, Rita Epple, 12, Maddie Sutherland, 12, and back row, Christos Wilkins, 12, Jaydan Vargas, 12, Anthony Encarnacion, 12, and Anthony Alvarado, 12.

PEABODY — Tuesday marked back to school in Peabody for its roughly 6,000 students.

And that had Superintendent Cara Murtagh making the rounds of the city's 10 schools, which included visits to the Center Elementary School on Irving Street, and what school officials say is the largest middle school in the state, the J. Henry Higgins Middle School on Perkins Street.

At Center School, which houses about 400 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, a banner that read "Happy 1st Day of School" hung at Principal Jacqui Orphanos' office. 

"I thought it was a very smooth first day back," said Orphanos, who started out as a special education preschool kindergarten teacher at the Burke Elementary School in 1989. She taught in various capacities for several years both in and out of the district until jumping at the chance to lead the Center School, in the neighborhood where her parents built their first house. 

"Seven happy years," Orphanos said. "This is my home."

This year, the school got some community and volunteer help with a redesign of the teachers' lounge and a renovation of the playground.

During the past year, the school received a $32,000 Community Preservation Act grant to renovate and expand the playground, including a new play structure.

In addition, Rotary Club, parent volunteers and high school students performing their community service hours helped stencil the playground for hopscotch and four square, while also adding a map. The city helped to update the basketball court. A grand opening of the playground is planned in a month.

Murtagh said over the summer, the school's bus loop was expanded so the buses would have more room to maneuver closer to the curb.

The school spruced up its teachers lounge with the help of PTO President Joy Kenney and her husband, Luke, a contractor, and some former parents who donated materials.

"It's a lounge now, it's very homey," Orphanos said.

The school has a new assistant principal, Sara Almeida, who is also teaching kindergarten.

As for how the first day of class was going, fifth-grader Alyssa Norden, 10, summed it up: "good."

At the Higgins Middle School, Principal Todd Bucey marked 25 years teaching in the same school, starting in the old Higgins Middle School, which was demolished when the new building was built next door in 2016.

He started in September 1995 as a social studies teacher. He taught for seven years, then served as a housemaster, which are now called "associate principals," for seven years. This year marks his 11th as principal.

The school, which has about 1,475 students, got off to a smooth start Tuesday.

"You know, the kids are great, so that's the easy part of it," said Bucey, who said the school was rolling out a new schedule this year.

"So, just getting everybody used to that," Bucey said, "it's quite a change for everybody."

When asked what he likes most about the school, Bucey said: "I would say the people are the best part of the school and this community. It's just a great place to be, I wouldn't dream of being anywhere else."

Peabody Veterans Memorial High started the school year with Assistant Superintendent Chris Lord as the acting principal with the resignation of former Principal Eric Buckley after the 2018-2019 school year. Four finalists were interviewed on Aug. 22, and Murtagh said Tuesday she was concentrating on the schools' opening before choosing the high school's next principal.

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at eforman@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews. 

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