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Building the bridge: Animas Valley students explore theme of hope for new school year

Elementary school staff members show enthusiasm for students as they return for the school year
Teachers and staff members at Animas Valley Elementary School welcome students for the first day of classes on Tuesday. (Matt Hollinshead/Durango Herald)

Animas Valley Elementary School students were welcomed back to claps and cheers on Tuesday morning as parents walked their children to their first day of class.

Some students were excited, while others showed trepidation as teachers and staff members greeted the students with high-fives and fist bumps in what they called a “bridge.”

This year’s word for the elementary school is “hope,” said Animas Valley Principal Michol Brammer.

Normally, Animas Valley staff members will do this at the end of year, but this year, Brammer and Vice Principal Alison Layman wanted to engage the students from the get-go.

“Hope isn’t just something that you’re looking for,” Brammer said. “Hope is actually a science and teaching kids that if they have hope that they can find multiple pathways to find success in their life.”

Elliot Hanson, a first grader, arrives for the first day of school Tuesday at Animas Valley Elementary School. (Matt Hollinshead/Durango Herald)

The elementary school is home to about 186 students and 37 staff members including teachers.

This is Brammer’s ninth year as principal at Animas Valley. She said her favorite part of the first day is to see the excitement each child has seeing their peers.

“There’s always going to be obstacles, right? Because you have to figure out different pathways to go along those obstacles in order to be successful,” she said. “We’re really focusing on perseverance and grit and being a culture where kids are really deeply thinking versus just thinking at a surface level.”

Inside Shelli Moore’s fifth grade class, students congregated to take their first step toward the ceremonial ringing of the bell upon graduating from the school.

Teachers and staff members at Animas Valley Elementary School welcome students for the first day of classes on Tuesday. (Matt Hollinshead/Durango Herald)

Durango school district spokeswoman Karla Sluis said that the old bell that hangs above the school’s entryway was taken from one of the original schoolhouses in the Animas Valley. At the end of each school year, fifth graders will ring the bell to signify that they’re ready to go to middle school.

Layman led the fifth grade class in the first morning announcement of the year, where the fifth graders read the Pledge of Allegiance and alerted the other students that chicken tenders were on the menu.

“It’s going to be an amazing year,” Layman said. “We’re really focused on the engagement continuum and setting goals.”

She also said sometimes these can be short-term goals or long-term goals. This might include improving reading fluency for second graders, which is a primary focus for that grade level, or practicing different strategies to improving their reading proficiency.

“Our teachers are committed, dedicated and so excited to welcome students,” she said. “You can just feel the energy in our school.”

Layman said there won’t be many changes this year at the school, but it will continue to dive deeper into the Portrait of a Graduate competencies.

The 2022-23 year was the inaugural year for the Portrait of Graduate plan, which is a compilation of specific skills and dispositions the district wants to develop from preschool through 12th grade. The skills are based on six pillars: courageous leadership, creative problem-solving, confident communication, agile thinking, empathetic collaboration and resilient risk taking.

Some parents dropped their child off for the first time, some for their last time in elementary school.

Brittany Luzar dropped her daughter, Kimber, off for her first day of fifth grade.

“It’s an emotional day for me every year,” Luzar said. “It’s just a big reminder of how big kids are getting.”

She said all of her children have attended Animas Valley Elementary and that they had great experiences at the school.

“It’s going be hard because my daughter’s in fifth grade and it’s her last year here,” she said. “I’ve loved this school for years.”

For other parents, it was their child’s first-ever day of school.

Katy Henk and Mint Henk dropped off their daughters, Harper and Maple. It was Harper’s first day of kindergarten, and Maple is in fourth grade.

Katy Henk said Harper was nervous starting kindergarten, but knew she was going to be fine because of Animas Valley’s staff.

“We’re excited just to see them grow as a person,” said Mint Henk.

It was a bittersweet moment for the parents, who were happy to see both of their kids now going to school five days a week but were also emotional about the thought of their kids getting older.

“It’s nine years in the making with what you have to go through with two kids and paying for day care and to have them go to a school that you really like is a great relief,” Mint Henk said.


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