Children will soon have to exchange bathing suits for backpacks as the Westerville City School District starts the 2015-16 school year Aug. 13.

Children will soon have to exchange bathing suits for backpacks as the Westerville City School District starts the 2015-16 school year Aug. 13.

With a new year approaching, shopping for school clothes, pencils, books, backpacks and other supplies is on parents' to-do lists as they prepare their children for nine months of learning. It's also time to meet new teachers, tour the school and check class rosters for familiar names.

Trading lazy summer days by the pool for a full schedule of learning may elicit whines from your youngster. But take heart: The first day of school may be more anxiety-inducing for you than your child, especially for first-timers.

First-day Jitters

It may be difficult to say farewell on the first day of school, but St. Paul School Principal Kathy Norris says parents are usually more nervous than children. Kindergarten coincides with the perfect age to soak up knowledge and start letting children experience some independence.

"It's hard sending kids off to school on the first day," Norris says. "It's a small step of them spreading their wings and growing. Be positive and if you have any first-day jitters, talk to the teacher about it. Stay excited about it."

St. Paul students head back to class Aug. 26.

For kindergartners, getting familiar with the new place they'll be spending their days is an important step to easing into the school year, says Barbara Wallace, Westerville's executive director of elementary academic affairs.

"It's important that a parent drive their child by the school to see the school," she says, adding that parents also should take advantage of open houses. "Get them as exposed to it as you can. Talk to them about what the day will be like."

Jessica Williams will send her daughter Violet, the youngest of three girls, to Huber Ridge Elementary School this fall. She says Violet seeing her older sisters in school has helped prepare her.

"We spend a lot of time over the summer just talking about the fun things that they're going to have an opportunity to do," Williams says.

When Williams' first child, Charlotte, was getting ready for kindergarten four years ago, a home visit from the teacher really helped, she says.

"I didn't understand the value of that until they were in our house and my 5-year-old was talking to them," Williams says. "They showed her pictures of what they do every year with students and give them supplies. I think it was just a pencil, but it feeds that excitement."

Huber Ridge also offers a chance for students to go into the school and meet their teachers in the days leading up to the new school year, says Principal Chris Blados.

"We invite just the kindergarten parents in and the two kindergarten teachers meet with them, explain expectations like how to pick up and drop off their child," he says.

The district's transportation department also has a first-time rider program that allows students to see a bus up close, meet a driver and take a ride with parents, says Greg Viebranz, executive director of communication and technology.

As for preparing students academically for kindergarten, Wallace recommends making education a part of their routine by reading signs to children when at the store and counting objects they see every day.

"The more they know their numbers and letter sounds, the easier it is for us," Blados says. "They should know what the day will be like, how to listen and get along with others."

Central Ohio offers many educational opportunities for children before they enter school, Norris says, and a fun day at the zoo can double as a learning experience.

"Children are like sponges at that age so they are soaking up everything around them," she says. "Expose them to a wealth of experience and keep them socially engaged with other children. For the most part, our children come to us more prepared than ever because of all the opportunities kids have today."

Kindergartners will come home with a headful of knowledge, learning to count and doing some basic addition and subtraction, Wallace says. Writing and reading also will be on the syllabus, along with lots of social interaction.

"They're going to learn to write more than just their name," Norris says. "They'll learn to make sentences and learn to express themselves in writing and orally as well. They'll learn to read."

Full-day Learning

The Westerville City School District will offer full-day kindergarten for the first time this fall to 260 children. Applications exceeded the spots available in the tuition-based program, so a lottery was used to choose the inaugural class.

Full-day kindergarten follows the district's strategic plan and came about this year both because it was financially feasible and classroom space was available, Wallace says.

There won't be many differences between the full- and half-day classes, district officials say. Both will offer the same curriculum. Full-day students will mainly get longer lessons, Wallace says. "It enables you to make the day work better for the teachers and the kids," she says. "You have more time to teach a concept in different ways."

Students in the full-day program will get more related arts programs, Wallace says.

"They won't be accelerated," Viebranz says of the full-day students. "The teachers will have more time to delve in-depth."

St. Paul also offers full-day kindergarten, and Norris says the program has a waiting list. The change from half-day that occurred three years ago has proven positive for students and the school, she says.

"When we went from half-day to full-day, we were concerned to make sure the kids weren't overwhelmed, but they have adjusted beautifully," Norris says. "We've seen an improvement in the first-grade kids. They are more advanced when they get to the first grade. It's been a very good thing."

With high demand for full-day kindergarten, Wallace says an expansion of Westerville's program is possible. "Next year we hope to extend that," she says. "There are typically 900 kids in kindergarten."

Helping Hands

Getting a child ready for classroom learning doesn't stop when they enter kindergarten. The Westerville school district offers several programs for students who are struggling academically or socially.

Teachers spend significant amounts of time with students, and school officials say they are on the front line when it comes to spotting issues, both in class and emotionally.

"Teachers play a direct role in creating relationships," says Scott Reeves, Westerville's executive director of secondary academic affairs.

Participating in clubs and sports also gives students a chance to build relationships with teachers and coaches who may be a good influence while showing how to set goals and meet them, Reeves adds.

Guidance counselors are available to help students through problems, but Viebranz says the district encourages all employees-whether they are bus drivers, teachers or custodians-to lend an ear when a student is in trouble.

"We work hard to explain that no matter the role you play in the district, you play a critical role in their development," he says.

Guidance counselors are particularly helpful at the middle school level when children are going through a lot of changes. "There's a metamorphosis through middle school," Reeves says. "They're going from kids to young adults. There are a lot of challenges."

For parents who are concerned a child may need extra help or is having issues, Reeves recommends talking to his or her teacher first, whether the problem is social or academic. While diagnostic tests can point out an academic problem, parents and teachers spend their days with students and will know if something is wrong. "It's a two-way street," Reeves says.

At the elementary level, students who need a little extra help can get it through classroom intervention on an individual or small group basis, Wallace says. "We have intervention for a few months to see if the child responds," she says.

Academically, middle school students are offered math- and reading-plus support programs. "If you can't read, you're not going to be able to do social studies," Reeves says. "Without math, you can't do some science."

At the high school level, help is available through efforts such as math labs and strategic reading.

The district does point students to tutors if necessary, but Reeves says teachers are happy to help students outside of class, whether it's after school or during lunch.

The district also uses the PowerSchool online application to keep track of students and any help they receive, so they don't start at square one at the beginning of each school year.

There also are opportunities for students who excel in science, technology, engineering and math.

At the elementary level, students who do well in the STEM subjects are clustered and offered a chance to do additional projects, Wallace says. Hanby Elementary School also offers a math and science magnet program.

Westerville was among a group of 15 central Ohio school districts that was awarded a $14.4 million grant from the state's Straight A Fund to support Innovation Generation, a new program that offers pathways to the growing career fields of health, business/logistics and advanced manufacturing that can start as early as middle school, Reeves says.

As part of the initiative, the district is participating in the MIT Fabrication Laboratories, better known as Fab Labs, that offer students a chance to work with 3-D printers, robots and other advanced manufacturing equipment.

Library Lessons

The Westerville Public Library offers students more than just books. Getting a library card is the first step to accessing reading materials, tutoring and many more educational services, says Linda Uhler, the library's manager of youth services.

Early Literacy Kits are available for checkout to get children interested in reading at a young age. The kits include books, songs, toys and activities for babies and children up to age 5.

Reading with a child is an important step toward creating a lifelong reader, but another key is to lead by example, Uhler says.

"The best thing to encourage your child to read is to be a reader yourself and set an example that you enjoy reading," she says. "It's important for parents to be seen reading and have reading materials around the house."

For parents who have tried to get their child interested in books to no avail, there are other options. Librarians can help pick out reading material that doesn't necessarily have to be a book, Uhler says.

"Every day, reader's advisory is one of the biggest services we provide," she says.

Librarians can point out books for each age level and help find ones that relate to a child's interests.

"If they don't like to read, find out why," Uhler says. "Find a connecting point. Of course we encourage parents to bring their children into the library and we can help them find age-level books."

Through Library Link, the Westerville Public Library offers services at local schools. The program, which lets students request books and then delivers them to the school, has sent 165,000 library materials out since it was established more than a decade ago.

Aside from checking out books and researching reports, students have another resource at the library. The Homework Help Center, open to all grade levels, offers assistance on an assignment, paper or project. Volunteers, some of them retired teachers, man the center from 5 to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday throughout the school year.

"It's very busy, especially through testing time," Uhler says. "There's anywhere from eight to 28 kids in there a day when it's open."

For more information about library resources for children, go to westervillelibrary.org/kids and westervillelibrary.org/teens.

Jennifer Noblit is a reporter for ThisWeek Community News.

This story appears in the Summer 2015 issue of Westerville365.