By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Kindergartners, the newest of the new, clambered off the bus at Glencliff Elementary School for their first-ever day of class on Monday.
As they made the leap from the bottom bus step to the sidewalk — a sizeable jump for people so small — Principal Shelley Baldwin-Nye was waiting to greet them.
“Good morning,” she said brightly, shaking each small hand.
Baldwin-Nye greets her students this way every day, not just the first, but on Monday, it was especially important to reassure them. One little boy skipped the handshake altogether and went for a hug instead.
Whether you’re 5 years old or 15, new beginnings can be intimidating. During the first few days of school, all hands were on deck in the Niskayuna Central School District to help newcomers feel relaxed and prepared to learn.
“On the first day of kindergarten, they’re just a little bit tentative,” Baldwin-Nye said.
Glencliff’s newest class isn’t completely new to the building. In August, parents and students were invited to take a test ride on the bus. Classes began Sept. 4 for grades 1-8, but kindergartners had only orientation on Sept. 4 and 5. Still, navigating without a family member to lean on is a fresh experience for the kids.
Baldwin-Nye did her best to help them feel embraced by their new school.
“Welcome everyone, and welcome especially to our kindergartners,” she called during morning announcements. “You are making us complete.”
Around the corner and down the hall from the principal’s office, veteran kindergarten teacher Abigail Weber was monitoring children as they played with puzzles, markers and blocks. She likes to let the students play any way they like on the first day so she can check on the kids whose transitions are more difficult, including seven in her classroom who are still working to learn English.
Later in the morning, they gather for books, singing and a name game. Weber reads them relatable stories like “Froggy Goes to School” and “Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten.”
“My goal is to have them feel as comfortable as possible,” said Weber, who has taught for 37 years, including 32 in kindergarten.
Still, sometimes the kids surprise her.
“My motto is, ‘Don’t assume anything,’ ” she said. “Every single year I learn something new.”
Luckily, the big surprise this year is how well the kids are settling in to their surroundings. Sharing crayons and markers at a round table, a few kids offered up their favorite things about school so far.
“I like that all my friends are in it,” said Karington Agostino. “It’s very fun.”
“I like playing,” added classmate John O’Brien.
“I like learning,” said Joseph Lagace.
It’s been a decade since the freshman class at Niskayuna High School sat around those same tables and colored, but their priorities haven’t changed much. They’re excited to see their friends and start learning, though they’re a bit worried about finding their classrooms, since the days of line-leaders are over for them.
They had a little help during freshman orientation Sept. 4. For one day, the Class of 2018 had the halls of Niskayuna High School to themselves as they navigated, eyes glued to maps and schedules.
“I was kind of nervous about my friends being in my classes,” said Rachel Jahoda, who went to Van Antwerp Middle School, but orientation put her mind at ease as she went through the motions of her A-day and B-day classes. She found familiar faces in almost every classroom.
“It’s kind of stressful,” said Skyleen Andujar, who also attended Van Antwerp before moving up to Niskayuna High this year. “I have a little trouble finding my way around.”
But that’s what orientation is for. Senior members of Key Club helped with freshman orientation, standing at assigned posts in the hallway and giving directions to lockers and classrooms. They worked to give the new students a peace of mind the older students wished they could’ve experienced.
“When we were freshmen, we didn’t have orientation,” said Amy Buhrmaster, a volunteer with the service club. “It was terrifying.”
She recalled being lost and feeling intimidated.
“Everyone looks so different from middle school,” she said.
The low-pressure first day of orientation was meant to help defuse that nervousness. Volunteer Madison Shmitt agreed an entire day for acclimation was a valuable use of time.
“It helps that there’s not a whole school full of people yet,” she said. “They can kind of get their footing.”
The group of volunteers also paid special attention to students who were new to the district, including freshmen from Ireland, China, Sudan and several states other than New York. Those Niskayuna newcomers had volunteer buddies during their entire first week.
There’s even a year-round club at the high school called Natural Helpers that continues to help anyone struggling with their high school transition become comfortable with the district and the school.
That won’t be necessary for freshman Derek Wolfe, who had already settled into his new high school routine by lunchtime. As a member of the Niskayuna rowing team, Wolfe said he and his teammates were at an advantage.
“I’m excited to make new friends,” he said. “We already know some high schoolers.”
Principal John Rickert put the purpose for the day succinctly as he addressed a group of orientees that day.
“You’re going to become a part of the tradition, the history and the culture of this high school, and that’s big,” he said.