For new first graders, a not-so-sneak preview

Posted: August 28, 2003

WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP — The first-grade bell will toll for Alexandra Altamuro a week from today, a reality she dealt with yesterday in a totally appropriate way. She clung tightly to her mother's hand.

"She's scared," Elizabeth Altamuro said as she and her 7-year-old daughter stood inside a well-decorated classroom in the school her daughter will attend. "I think this will help."

For more than a decade, the Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in Washington Township, where Elizabeth Altamuro once taught and where her daughter is about to be taught, has staged a first-grade orientation to acquaint new pupils and their parents with the school and hopefully head off some opening day jitters.

Jefferson, which has an annual enrollment of about 600 first through fifth graders, is the only one of the district's six elementary schools to host such a program.

"This is a tradition," said principal Jeff Pollock, who is starting his fourth year running Jefferson. "The response has always been great."

In Washington Township, kindergartners attend the Grenloch Terrace Early Childhood Center in half-day sessions before going to their nearest elementary school for first grade and a full day.

Assembling in the cafeteria, about 50 children and their parents heard Pollock and reading specialist Jean Smith address many concerns and fears, including how children spend their lunch time (most don't eat at first; they are too busy chatting) to how they find their classrooms after getting off the bus (teachers without homerooms will guide them) to school safety (doors are locked; a visitor has to be buzzed into the building).

Then, Smith and four PTO volunteers, each carrying a different colored banner affixed to a yardstick, led the pupils and parents on a quick tour of the building.

Waving a yellow banner, Smith, like the commander of a legion of Rome, took her group to the nurse's office, then upstairs to the library and computer room, then back down to the first floor and a visit to the first-grade classrooms.

"This is nice, very helpful," said Roland Dawson, whose daughter Nya becomes a first grader next week. For Dawson, this is the second time around. He went through the orientation previously with his daughter Tahja, now 7.

While the groups visited all four first-grade classrooms, room assignments were not given out. Following another Jefferson tradition, that information will be posted in the school at 4 p.m. tomorrow.

Finally, the families returned to the cafeteria, where cookies and juice were served and more questions answered.

"This was very impressive," said Andrea Gonzalez, standing with her husband, Julio, and son Cameron, 6. "And he [Cameron] saw some kids he knew from kindergarten. That's good."

Contact staff writer Terry Bitman

at 856-779-3919 or tbitman@phillynews.com.

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