SALEM — Ruben Carmona stood among a group of teachers at Horace Mann Laboratory School on Thursday.
The school dates back to 1896, but it faces a new future. The principal is new, and the teachers are in a new home, as are all the students. Partnerships at the school are also nothing like they were last year.
“We’re building the plane as we’re flying, and flying the plane as we’re building it,” Carmona told his team. “I can’t wait for this year, to see what we do, put ideas on the table and say, ‘how does this work together?’”
Carmona, last year an elementary school principal in Lowell, used to teach in the building when it was known as the Nathaniel Bowditch School. Now, he leads Horace Mann, which moved into the Willson Street school after the School Committee tumultuously dissolved the Bowditch earlier this year.
“It was a very political process, with a lot of hard feelings,” Carmona said, sitting in his office during a lunch break. “I want to stay above all that, because my job is that I have to make things happen, regardless of what happened before. My vision is about a caring and welcoming environment.”
Wednesday, Sept. 5, the first day of school, will be a new day for everyone, even those who were part of Bowditch before it was closed.
“It’s a hundred-year-old school with a new start,” said Horace Mann second-grade teacher Diana Robinson, who last year taught at Bowditch under her maiden name, Diana Vargas. “We have this new opportunity with these new facilities, with everything we need. We can work together to stay here for another 100 years — or more.”
Last year, Horace Mann had 272 students spread across kindergarten through grade 5. Going into 2018-19, 32 Bowditch students are being added to the mix, as the school moves into a much bigger building than its cramped former facility, on the Salem State University campus. With that, one classroom has also been added.
Many residents and staff feared the school’s withdrawal from Salem State would diminish the university’s relationship with its lab school. But the university has increased its teaching fellows from one to five — students who will teach at Horace Mann full-time and take night classes back on campus.
Pathways, a North Shore-based pre-kindergarten program, is also converging several facilities and programs into an unused wing at Horace Mann. The program will bring 71 preschool students to six classrooms this year, with space for 108 kids spread across nine classrooms, according to Pathways Executive Director Sue Todd.
Carmona emphasized the need to build culture and provide socio-emotional structure for students.
“We can’t do quality learning unless we have that in place,” he said. “So it’s like taking a step back before you launch yourself into the future.”
A lot of that centers on a “CARES” system the school is putting in motion. The system celebrates problem-solving skills, cooperative attitudes between students, and making solid choices.
“We know that, in order for us to learn, we need to feel safe. We need to feel connected. We need to feel valued. That applies to us, applies to adults, and applies to kids as well,” Carmona told teachers. “When I met with some of you, as well as families, and a couple of kids I met, that’s one of the things that was pointed out — we have a wonderful system and a wonderful community, but there are pieces missing.”
Classrooms will carve out time every day to recognize and reinforce healthy behaviors. Five minutes will be set aside Monday through Thursday, and Friday will see a 25-minute “celebration” period highlighting the successes from the previous week — or need for growth, for those not exhibiting good values.
“It could be as simple as kids wear a hat, watch a video about nature or eat a Popsicle,” Carmona told his staff. “As kids see what happens, they’ll be engaged in the same process of drinking the Kool-Aid.”
Each classroom will also select and honor a CARES nominee once a month.
“In assemblies, once a month, we’re going to celebrate the CARES, and we’ll break that down for you,” Carmona said. “Right now, it might look like disjointed pieces, but trust me, this is one way to get kids to buy into a culture that embraces values.”
New faces, new energy
At the same time, there are other problems many staff are facing in their new school. Perhaps the biggest among them: where are the bathrooms?
Cassandra Schubert, a newly hired teacher in room 306, said it helps ease her anxiety knowing that almost everyone in the building doesn’t have their bearings.
“It’s just nice knowing you aren’t alone,” she said as she trimmed a science poster from a laminated sheet. “Pretty much everyone else is feeling the same anxiety or stress, having to unpack your room, the boxes. It definitely made the transition easier.”
Robinson, the second-grade teacher, is one of only three faculty at the school who were part of Bowditch last year. She’s joined by a language specialist and administrator who have also remained.
“A lot of teachers have been great, reaching out to tell me how supportive they are,” she said. “But they also reach out to say, ‘hey, can you tell me where the closest bathroom is?’ ‘Where is the laminator?’”
There are still some reminders of Bowditch around the building. Halls that two months ago were filled with crying staff and students are the same color. And a display full of Nathaniel Bowditch items remains on the third floor, highlighting his ocean work more than 200 years ago.
But that’s all history. The focus now is on the community filling the school today.
“I’m just happy and excited, happy to see the kids coming back from Bowditch, because I’m going to be that familiar face for them,” Robinson said. “My motto has always been for the education of children, and I’m here to continue doing that.”