Visitors to Donlin Drive Elementary last Friday could find most of the school’s 490 students dressed in green in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. Others wore pajamas for a school spirit Pajama Day. All seemed to be having fun — a common occurrence at the school.
March 16 kicked off with a schoolwide assembly in which students watched a group of Irish dancers from the Ashford Academy of Irish Dance. After the demonstration, several of the girls tried to imitate the moves.
“It’s a really fun school,” said Nancy Lazara, a teacher’s aide who works in the office. “There’s a lot of school spirit here.”
“The staff is really genuine,” agreed Cathy DiMarco, attendance secretary. “There are no cliques. Everyone’s really happy with everyone.”
Brand new building
In 2003, the school completed a massive renovation. The new building is open and airy with plenty of windows, including one at the front of the office allowing the staff to see everyone who enters the building.
“It’s for kids’ safety,” DiMarco said. “And the parents are very respectful of that.”
Principal John Sardella said that the new building has helped to contribute to the culture of the school.
“We make a difference for kids,” Sardella said. “We work as a team that works together, collaborating strongly as a staff.”
The school’s motto, utilizing the school’s initials, is “Determined to make a difference, dedicated to our community and educating our future.” The teachers and students work together to accomplish those goals through the school’s extensive character education program.
“It connects our students to our community,” Sardella said. “It’s a big component of our building We try to have fun. We try to be very involved with people. We want them to feel connected.”
The staff at DDE does struggle sometimes to maintain that connection; Sardella said that 20 percent of the school’s population moves in and out throughout the school year.
“It’s a matter of meeting the needs of our society,” Sardella said. “It stems from the cultural effect of the media. Kids are exposed to so much at such a young age. The challenges are daily because of those experiences. It’s a matter of children taking responsibility for their own actions. We work hard with families to help children make the right choices.”
One way the school accomplishes that is by offering numerous extracurricular activities, including student council, academic support, garden club, snowshoeing club, Rocket Club (in which students build rockets from models and launch them at the end of the year) and a science fair. Students are involved in their community, sending holiday cards to the seniors at Birchwood and contributing to the food pantry at St. Patrick’s Church. The students raise money throughout the year for a selected charity; this year it’s the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The school is also open to community activities like Optimist basketball and color guard.
“We really pride ourselves on working as a complete unit,” Sardella said. “Our focus is to make kids feel like a million bucks.”
Children at play
The kids of DDE are in need of a new playground to match their beautiful new building. Physical education teacher Bob Zenker, who has been at the school for more than three decades, said discussions for fundraising for the structure began last week.
“We’ll need $75,000,” Zenker said. “The fundraiser will kick off with a T-shirt sale at our open house.”
Zenker said the school hopes to have the new playground built in a year and a half. He said the school is seeking corporate donations and other sources of money. In addition, the kids will help out.
“We’re going to have a quarter drop at our open house in two weeks,” Zenker said. “The kdis will climb the cargo nets in the gym. They’ll have quarters taped to their shirts and once they get to the top, they’ll drop the quarters into the kiddie pools we’ll have set up at the bottom. It’s a perfect analogy — our kids can be actively involved in building their new playground.”
Zenker said he envisions a different way to keep track of the money raised. “You know how they have thermometers that show how much they’ve raised?” he said. “I want to have a dragon [the school mascot] with an empty stomach. The theme will be ‘Feed the Dragon,’ and he’ll get colored in with purple as we get more money.”
Meanwhile, the children will continue their regular gym activities — rope-climbing, snowshoeing and outside play.
Making learning fun
And the fun doesn’t stop when kids leave gym. The teachers at DDE are dedicated to finding new ways to teach kids in fun ways that will get through to all learners.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the fifth grade. The fifth grade team, made up of Larry Segovis, Cathy Maw and Peter Crumb, have set up a mini-space station in their cluster through which they work on the regulated curriculum. There is a mission control center in Segovis’ room and a “spaceship” in Crumb’s. Students communicate with each other from room to room to work on assignments relating to English, math, science and social studies.
“We have scripts that we created with different things in the curriculum built into them,” Maw said.
Students are divided into three groups: mission control, the ship’s crew and the press corps. After students complete a mission, they are then responsible for briefing the press. The activity allows them to practice their public speaking, and the press corps students can work on their question-and-answer skills.
At the end of the year, the classes design a patch that represents the whole fifth level. The patch is then posted on the grade website and blown up and displayed in the classrooms. Each student also gets one as a keepsake.
The activity generates excitement among the students. All want to participate, but they must meet academic standards and have all of their assignments completed in order to do so.
“It teaches kids problem-solving, because you basically have eight kids running the whole thing by themselves,” Crumb said. “There’s no fooling around. They’re very focused. We’re very pleased with it.”
Crumb said that the enthusiasm exhibited by the students sustains the project. “They get the excitement of saying, ‘We want to participate in this,'” he said. “Every child gets to experience what it’s like to do each position. We try to make it as much fun as possible. It’s academically based, of course, but we can cater to all levels. We make it within their reach.”
More information about the space program can be found at DDE’s website.
Serving little ones
Donlin is also home to the LEEP program. The preschool program is housed in one area of the building to keep all of the kids together. Sixth-graders come down to help out in the LEEP classrooms, which have special-needs kids and their “typical” peers integrated into one class. Three-year-olds attend in the morning and 4-year-olds in the afternoon. There are a total of 60 children involved.
“It’s a research-based curriculum,” said Maureen Jordan, speech therapist. “Everything points to research for pre-K being very important. And here, the kids get the experience of being in the school community.”
Teacher Joan Dear-Houseman agreed. “We have a reading program with the sixth grade,” she said. “They come and they read to the kids. It’s nice for our kids, because they have role models. It’s a win-win for both groups.”
Both women said their program benefits from a high degree of parental involvement as well as individualized programs that cater to each student’s strengths and weaknesses. The program also allows for a smoother transition into kindergarten for both the kids and their parents.
One of the most important aspects of an education at DDE is character education. The program carries throughout the curriculum at the school as well as its extra activities. It was started by fourth-grade teacher Deb Jeneault when she came to the school four years ago from Willow Field.
“There was really no character ed program in place when I came,” Jeneault said. “I saw a need here to start an organization that would bring students together and empower them to take ownership of their building.”
Students attend a character ed assembly each month at which a speaker from outside the school will come and discuss a particular trait. The students also discuss how to better their community and to work together for the same goal.
Jeneault said that her fourth-graders provide a good example of students working to improve the community. She said that the school adopted Donlin Drive (the street, not the school) and maintain the street and the neighborhood around it with the help of neighbors and community members.
“It’s embedded in their daily behaviors,” Jeneault said of the program. “It shows in their daily choices.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.