By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — An unusual scene unfolded at Van Antwerp Middle School on Oct. 10.
Students rode mountain bikes up and down the hill outside the school. They painted directly onto the walls in the hallways. They picked fantasy football teams and played ping pong in the classrooms.
In the gym, bows stretched and arrows flew at one end, while Latin dance music blared at the other. In the home-and-careers room, students invented new varieties of pizza and cookies by the minute.
There was hardly a book or a pencil in sight, unless you count the art supplies that some students were using to make scrapbooks.
You might expect Principal Luke Rakoczy to put a stop to the apparent madness, but he wasn’t in his office. He had gone fishing, and taken a few students along with him.
It was Community Day at Van Antwerp, and while it may have looked like students were on the loose, their teachers were right alongside them, having an equally wonderful time.
During Community Day, which Rakoczy estimates has been a tradition at Van Antwerp for five or six years, students rotate through five workshops ranging from computer programming to yoga. Each unique seminar is proposed and developed by a Van Antwerp teacher. Students rank their favorites in advance, then receive individualized schedules.
The idea is to help students and teachers get to know each other in a less-formal setting.
“It’s not a traditionally academic day,” Rakoczy said after he returned from his fishing excursion in Central Park. But the teachers don’t mind — in fact, they look forward to it as much as the kids do.
“They want to do it because they know in the long run they’re building a better school,” he said.
Personally, Rakoczy said he enjoys the opportunity to talk to kids about something unique, like fishing, to build a bond that will last all year. The student body at Van Antwerp is about 450 strong, and he strives to know them all by the end of each academic year.
“I always have the goal of trying to know at least something about all of them,” Rakoczy said.
Art teacher Alyssa La Patra led three small groups of students dispersed throughout the Van Antwerp hallways as they painted community-themed murals on the walls.
A heart puzzle on one wall displayed the clubs and activities students at the middle school were involved in. A few steps away, the young artists were painting an apple tree whose trunk and branches represented Niskayuna’s roads, and whose leaves stood for houses in its distinct neighborhoods. Around the corner, a friendly school of fish took shape.
The mural project began last year, when La Patra founded an after-school art club. Originally, she had asked for permission to paint just one mural with the students, but membership far exceeded her expectations. She had to split them into multiple groups to give everyone a chance to have a hand in the project.
That first year, students mostly planned. Now, the painting phase is well under way, and the students who signed up to help during Community Day made a lot of progress.
“They’ve come a long way,” La Patra said, admiring one of the murals while the children worked. She said the day was a great opportunity for the students to work uninterrupted on their art.
Sixth-grader Aiden Corr worked on the apple tree mural with a group of new friends.
“My mom’s an artist,” he said, proudly filling in leaves and branches.
In the home-and-careers room, the excitement was palpable as students raced the clock in their own version of the Food Network TV show, “Chopped.” Using between three and five ingredients, each team had to invent a dish, prepare it, then display it neatly on a plate for the judges — their teachers — to try.
“You couldn’t even believe the treats they’ve made,” special educator Casey Horner said. There were dessert ravioli, pizza cups, cookies and tiny apple pies. Each group of three was required to record the recipe they invented together. The teachers photocopied them into little recipe books so the students could try each other’s creations at home.
“I like working with the kids in a setting that’s not classroom-based,” she said.
They realize, “She’s not just a teacher; she’s a person!” Horner said with a laugh.
“It’s a fun way to get to know people,” said sixth-grader Matthew Ferri as he worked frantically to spread a frosting topping on a plate of croissants.
Some of the kids learned other practical skills, too, like how to get frosting out of their clothing.
Ron Williams, who worked at the district for 43 years as an eighth- and ninth-grade science teacher before retiring, returned to Van Antwerp to teach students to make a pinhole camera, or camera obscura. In a darkened classroom with just a sliver of light, they were able to see the outside world projected on the ceiling. It’s the same technique Dutch painters once used.
“That’s one of the reasons [they] could get such infinite detail in their paintings,” he said.
Williams said he loves coming back to the classroom to mingle with students once again.
“They say kids have changed a lot, but they’re still human beings,” he said.
Students in the Digital Photo Basics seminar did double duty by learning about cameras while documenting the day’s events.
“It’s cool to see the school,” eighth-grader Lindsey Weitz said. “You see things you never noticed before.”
Taylor Ritmo, also an eighth-grader, said photographing Van Antwerp was a freeing experience.
“You can take pictures of anything,” she said. While walking around with Weitz, she said they had noticed details of the art on the wall that they’d never really paid attention to before.
“I wish we could do this every day,” Weitz said.
They headed off together to take pictures of students playing backyard games and practicing safe braking while riding downhill on mountain bikes.
As they are each year, Community Day festivities were neatly tied off with an assembly that focuses on kindness and compassion. An anti-bullying presentation reminded the students about the real reason they were able to spend a school day driving robots around the pool and riding bikes up and down the lawn.
Principal Rakoczy put it simply:
“How you treat each other matters,” he said.