"I played with my Legos all summer," she said. "But it's fun to be back. I like doing homework."
Her favorite homework subject?
"Playing in the park."
Such was the scene throughout Secaucus at the town's students shook off their summer daze and got back to the books.
Reading is fundamental
Alanah and her classmates are not the only people gearing up for new experiences this fall. Teacher Michelle Wurst is taking over a brand new first grade class this year. An experienced teacher in the district and a Secaucus native, she is looking forward to the school year ahead.
"This is my first year in first grade," she said. "I didn't notice too much separation anxiety among the first graders so far. They are pretty brave kids. As a teacher, I think in first grade you can see the learning progression more than any other grade, particularly regarding reading. That's where you really see a major difference. This is when it happens."
Huber School Street Principal Fred Ponti presides over a school of approximately 536 students. He noted that an extra first grade class and an extra kindergarten class were created due to the dynamic demographics of Secaucus.
"The school population is really crazy, because from year to year, everything changes," Ponti said. "If you look at the middle school, it originally opened up with 188 kids about 20 years ago. Last year, just in eighth grade, they graduated 172 kids. That's almost a phenomenon."
In some ways, Ponti sees this phenomenon as real estate driven.
"People are beginning to move into town and are purchasing existing homes," he said. "This means more students. Things like that New Jersey Monthly magazine article that listed Secaucus as the 19th best place to live in the state are happening too. It's not hurting us, that's for sure. It's become very attractive for people to move here and educate their kids here."
Why school is cool
The kids who are being educated at Huber Street School had their own opinion about how they felt about being back in school. For first-grader Ameer Rezeq, 6, the way to win his mind is to win his stomach.
"School is good, because when you go in the cafeteria, you can choose your own lunch," he said. "I love mozzarella sticks. Eating is the best thing about school."
The kids of Huber Street School have been described as brave. They are also bold.
Brian O'Connell, 6, of the first grade, was not afraid to express himself about how he felt to be back in the classroom.
"It's evil," he said.
In a quick diplomatic reversal, O'Connell then spoke about the things he enjoyed about the experience.
"We get to go in the cafeteria and eat chicken wings," he said. "My other favorite part is when we have gym."
His classmate, Bethany Olive, 6, loves gym too.
"I really, really like the 'bubble game,' " she said. "You get to run around in circles."
Bethany's mother Anabel Olive is happy to see her daughter back in school with her friends. However, she views the year ahead to be a challenging one.
"Because she's starting first grade, it's not a relief for me that she's back, because soon she'll be doing homework and she'll be asking a lot of questions," she said. "But I'm happy to help."
An adjustment for everybody
Principal Ponti is also ready to help. He noted that as much as things change in schools, some stay the same.
"Look at ourselves when we were growing up," he said. "We had our teacher figured out by the end of the year. That's the students' new jitters. What's the teacher going to expect? Will he or she be hard? How much work will I have to do? Kids have changed, but they haven't changed as far as what they worry about. I think more now than ever before the parents worry."
Ponti tries to make the transition for parents and students alike as gentle as possible.
"We had an orientation session last Wednesday at the performing arts center up at the high school with all the parents who can come from Huber Street and Clarendon School. The teachers come in too. A lot of times with the parents of pre-K students, it's their first child ever hitting the system. They are worried, and they are adjusting too. We have the teachers go through the program with the pre-K parents in particular to make them feel comfortable. It all starts with the foundation. The better the foundation with the parents and the kids, the more comfortable they feel."
Ponti is now going into his 34th year overall in education. He has been principal at Huber Street for three years. No matter how much time he has spent in education, the first few days back to school remain rewarding. "The best part about it is to see the smiles of the kids coming in," he said. "It's always beautiful to see the kids grow from one year to the next. Education is a beautiful thing. There's always that little bit of little kid in all of us. For the kids, their attitudes have to grow as they grow."