First Day of School: What it takes to get U-46 ready for 38,000 students
For weeks, suburban schools have been abuzz with a flurry of activity as officials prepare for the yearly onslaught of eager young learners scurrying about hallways and classrooms.
Getting a school ready is a daunting feat requiring round-the-clock work throughout the summer to get buildings in order.
Here is the process from three perspectives at the state's second-largest school district -- Elgin Area School District U-46 -- where more than 38,000 students begin classes Wednesday.
The star attraction that gets students excited in Kristina Sawyer's dual language classroom is a 5-year-old pet corn snake.
"Sky," as the snake was named by students last school year, is a big hit with Sawyer's fourth-graders at Creekside Elementary School in Elgin.
A former marine science teacher, Sawyer purchased the snake with grant funding and uses it as part of her instruction. She even keeps the shed snakeskin in zip-locked bags for students to measure the snake's growth.
"I actually take her out and let them either pet her or, toward the end of the year, they'll actually get to hold her," Sawyer said.
Getting the snake fed and settled into its tank for the new school year was Sawyer's first order of business upon returning to her classroom last week.
It's Sawyer's fifth year teaching a dual language classroom in which students are taught math in English, science and social studies in Spanish, and literacy in both languages.
She spent the past week decluttering and purging mounds of unused supplies, materials and bilingual books accumulated over the years and supplementing her classroom collection of board games with recent finds at thrift stores or in her mom's basement.
"I decided to make a board game shop this year because I love board games," Sawyer said. "Last year, we started a board game club after school in the winter and we had 50 kids join it ... It was just really nice to get kids involved in things that weren't screen based."
Sawyer got $100 from the school's parent-teacher organization to purchase classroom supplies, which typically doesn't covers her costs. She also salvages used supplies from what students throw away at the end of each school year.
"I have old notebooks that can be reused, old pencils from other years ... I really try to save stuff for maybe students or families who can't bring in all the supplies," she said.
She uses a box of buttons collected from her childhood experiences as prize badges for students to earn for positive behavior.
A custodial worker cleans the floor at South Elgin High School ahead of the start of the new school year Wednesday. Hundreds of workers have been painstakingly sprucing up Elgin Area School District U-46's 57 school buildings, involving scrubbing down surfaces, then taking things apart and putting them back together again.
- Courtesy of Elgin Area School District U-46
Behind the scenes:
Josh Beu's role as U-46's coordinator of maintenance operations is akin to the grease that makes a machine run well.
"If I've done my job, you won't even know that I was there," said Beu, who ensures the district's 57 school buildings are well cleaned and maintained for the new school year. "We're here to make it run smoothly."
As soon as school was out in May, a legion of custodial and maintenance workers began a painstaking process of sprucing up facilities, involving scrubbing down surfaces, then taking things apart and putting them back together again. It's a coordinated plan working around summer school construction and mechanical projects.
"Every piece of furniture gets wiped down, the floors get stripped and waxed," Beu said. "We systematically go through the buildings and clean as much as we possibly can until the construction projects are completed. Then, we go after the buildings that were under construction for the last seven weeks."
Throughout the summer, workers have re-tiled the floors at 10 schools and portions of 10 other buildings, rebuilt bathroom partitions at three schools, repainted three schools from top to bottom, and sanded down and rebuilt three gym floors. A 34-member maintenance crew performed preventive maintenance and needed repairs on every piece of mechanical equipment in the buildings, and then tested the systems to ensure they are fully operational for the first day of classes.
"It's a daunting figure the amount of mechanicals that are inside one of these buildings," Beu said. "We're pulling everything apart -- anything mechanical, heating, cooling or a moving part. It keeps us busy. We're here to make sure the education process works."
Defining the goals, ideals and values of a school are just as important as having classrooms ready for learning, says Streamwood High School's new Principal Jennifer VanDeusen.
That's where the school's new motto -- "strive, honor, succeed." -- comes in.
"We wanted it to really reflect a growth mindset for a progressive student of today," said VanDeusen.
She said students really didn't connect with the school's previous ideals -- safety, hold yourself accountable and show respect.
"They wanted to showcase what being a Sabre means to them. We have some rebranding to do," she said.
VanDeusen decided to start this school year with a blank canvas, literally. Streamwood High's third floor has been repainted to provide a clean slate for students to display their artwork.
"Students get to have some input on the mark that they are leaving on the school," VanDeusen said. Over the summer, VanDeusen hired 21 new teachers and counselors and 11 administrators. Assistant principals have been getting teachers up to speed on different curricula, the administrative team has been on call 24/7 to handle any issues ahead of school opening, while support staff and deans have been handling building logistics, she said.
Since last week, teachers and administrators have been back in the building decorating classes, working on welcome signs for the front door, bulletin boards, and beautifying the employee lounge, which now has comfortable seating, a whiteboard and foosball and air hockey tables.
"We really wanted to have it be a place where our people could get together monthly and really see each other," VanDeusen said. "It could be a collaborative space for teachers."
On Wednesday, the school's roughly 1,995 students will be welcomed by the marching band and 230 staff members. Freshmen will get Sabre pride T-shirts as a treat.
"I really want students to be wowed on Day 1," VanDeusen said. "We're really going to focus on this idea of change and what it means to different people."
U-46 back-to-school prep by the numbers• Facilities: 65 buildings, 57 schools and programs, four stadiums and five pools.
• Staff: 32 groundskeepers, 34 maintenance workers, 95 custodians and 152 outside cleaning contractors spent roughly 137,980 man-hours getting schools ready.
• Food for first day: 2,091 pounds of fresh apples; 1,168 pounds of burgers; 2,800 pounds of crinkle-cut fries; 12,000 slices of cheese pizza for elementary schools; 7,500 packs of Pop-Tarts for breakfast in classroom/carts; 600 pounds romaine lettuce; 600 pounds of fresh melon; 5,000 fresh bananas for secondary schools.
• Employees: a total of 2,596 teachers, including 227 new hires.
• Transportation: a fleet of 351 school buses currently serving 283 bus routes.
• Furniture: 1,577 pieces of new furniture, including bookcases, tackboards, desks, tables, chairs and file cabinets.
• Equipment: 5,863 new laptops, 500 new desktops and 11,750 new Chromebooks purchased.
Source: Elgin Area School District U-46