FLORIDA — The morning was picture-perfect: sunshine pouring over the mountain and smiling, laughing students entering a small country school with a friendly greeting from the principal standing outside the school door, welcoming the pupils returning from summer recess.
That was the scene Wednesday at the Gabriel Abbott Memorial School as 87 students made their way back to classrooms after greetings and smiles from Principal Heidi Dugal. The school is a kindergarten through Grade 8 school and a preschool program operates there as well.
Her hopes are high for the students here. The classes are small — this year's eighth grade has five students — but their dreams and goals are as solid and ambitious as those of students enrolled in larger, more populated schools, Dugal said.
"I hope every student has a successful educational experience and enjoys the school year," she said.
While the first day of school was barely underway, two eighth-grade students who were raising the American flag expressed nerves about the 2017-18 school year, when they will enter a much larger high school.
"I'm scared to go to high school," said Sarah Fortini.
The nerves are an ongoing occurrence among the upperclassmen attending the school, Dugal said. The thought of being very new and small fish in the very vast and populated pools of local high schools can rattle students who attend school with four or five classmates.
Local high schools have greatly improved first-year student preparations, Dugal said. She noted the Charles H. McCann Technical School exploratory program, which introduces middle-school-aged students to the high school and its many curriculums in a very friendly way. Drury High School hosts "prep days," which also bring students into the school for familiarization.
"The kids are nervous but our schools are doing a great job of prepping," Dugal said. "The kids always come back here to visit and we see that after a couple of weeks at a high school, they are in the rhythm. What we also see, and this speaks to coming from a small school, is that our kids tend to be on the honor roll. They come back to this school and they help with the eighth grade ambassadors and help with the projects."
The "ambassadors" are part of a state initiated Project 351, which brings an eighth grade student from all of the state's 351 communities together in Boston for community service efforts honoring Dr. Martin Luther King. The event is held in January. The first initiative event was launched by former Gov. Deval Patrick in 2011. Because the Abbott school often has students from Florida, Monroe and Savoy, three ambassadors may hail from that school, Dugal said.
Nerves are not limited to students. Matt Davis dropped his daughter Brinley off for her first day of kindergarten.
"She's doing better than I am," he said. "She came here for pre-school, and it was full day but it's a little nerve-wracking when your first-born is starting regular school."
Students were in for a special surprise on Wednesday. A Parent-Teacher Group arranged for an ice cream vendor to visit school during opening day to deliver ice cream treats. The cafeteria made the first day "Nacho Day," as many students enjoy the meal, Dugal said.
A school employee is currently absent battling a serious illness and the employee is known as being "dressed to the nines and always in high heels,"said Dugal. Employees filling in for the absent worker are wearing high-heeled shoes in her honor, and everyone is using technology to keep the employee in the loop with the goings on of a new year, Dugal said.
"Cupcake Mondays" will be offered as a fundraiser benefitting the employee, she added.
"There is such a sense of community in a small school," Dugal said.
Limited financial resources mean administrators and teachers must find ways to meet state regulations and mandates without adding excessive costs.
"We were inclusive here before inclusive became a buzzword," Dugal said. "I like to think that each of my teachers are gifted because of all those experiences."
Last year, for the first time in 27 years, the school operated without a single snow day.
"That probably won't happen again," Dugal said with a smile, noting that because the town is perched atop a mountain, snow days are usually quite common.
One reason for the early return to classes is the state mandated test schedule, which requires the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) testing and Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System testing be done between mid-April to near the end of May. Dugal said she doesn't know what the tests will look like this year but in combination with the school's own assessments done every trimester, by June students are tired.
"By the end of the year, the kids are just done," she said. "This way we get a nice start and they come in fresh."