When Wendy Phillips, a first grade teacher at McKay Creek Elementary School, asked her students if they were nervous for the first day of school, Chris Fritsch’s hand shot up.

While Fritsch isn’t a student, Tuesday marked his first day of school as the Pendleton School District superintendent.

McKay Creek was his first stop as a part of a day-long tour of every school in the district.

InterMountain Education Service District spokeswoman Michele Madril was snapping photos of students posing with a welcome banner before school started.

Madril pulled Fritsch into one of the photos, and before she took a few shots, he asked the kids if they were excited for the first day of school.

“Sort of!” one of the kids responded.

A longtime school administrator in Longview, Washington, Fritsch took the reins in July but used the first day to greet teachers and interact with students.

Driving from school to school in his pick-up truck with New England Patriot floor mats (“It provides for a healthy conversation on Sundays,” Fritsch said of him and his wife, who is a Seahawks fan), the man elementary teachers described to their students as “the boss of all the bosses” and “the big guy on campus” explained that it was important for him to have a presence in the schools if he was going to be involved in district conversations with teachers and the community.

“You can’t lead what you don’t know,” Fritsch said.

Fritsch plans to make trips to the schools each week as a part of a regular routine.

District-wide issues

Declining enrollment is a trend on Fritsch’s radar.

According to Fritsch, approximately 3,052 students were in attendance at a Pendleton School District school on the first day.

While that figure is better than the district ended with on June 1, it’s lower than the 3,173 students who attended the first day of school last year.

Although the district expects student enrollment to rise in the coming weeks, it’s taking steps to try to address the problem.

Fritsch said he’s taking a look at the “cohort survival rate,” studying each grade level year by year and seeing how many students stay on or transfer elsewhere.

He also wants to start looking at families who live in Pendleton but never entered their kids into public schools in the first place.

In the meantime, the district will continue to develop an online school program to bring some district students back into the fold.

Fritsch said administration also wants to right-size classroom numbers. Fritsch would like to see class sizes in the low-20s rather than the 28-29 students some classes are experiencing.

New at schools

At the high school level, the district’s career technical education program has grown while also taking a hit.

Pendleton High School Principal Dan Greenough said robotics and culinary classes are now taught full-time at the Pendleton Technology and Trades Center instead of being split between the high school’s main campus and the former West Hills Intermediate School behind it.

Kristin Swaggart’s culinary program is being bolstered in other ways — including more classes at the center’s commercial kitchen.

In addition, thanks to a $100,000 grant from Farmers Insurance, the culinary program’s food truck has been delivered and is road ready.

Outfitted with a smoker, fryer, oven and other pieces of equipment, Swaggart said the truck will be open to the public at the PHS football team’s home opener against La Grande High School on Friday.

Swaggart said students won’t serve food out of the truck until they get some learning under their belt and food handler licenses.

Despite the gains in the CTE program, it also lost its full-time coordinator.

When former CTE Coordinator Curt Thompson filled a vacancy left behind by former high school Assistant Principal Chris Bettineski, who now works as the InterMountain Online coordinator, the district left Thompson’s old position unfilled.

Fritsch said high school staff will handle CTE coordinating duties for now, but the district will look at reviving the position longterm with dropout prevention funds from Measure 98.

At Sunridge Middle School, Principal Dave Williams said his faculty are making a concerted push to build personal relationships with students.

Williams said that research shows that students with strong relationships with teachers perform better in school and attend more often.

He had his staff create a master list of ways to build bonds with students, which were then reduced to a handful of methods teachers could employ.

Williams said it could be as simple as seeing a student wearing a Ducks or Beavers shirt and striking up a conversation about it.

During her prep period, Sunridge sixth grade teacher Nichole Erwin told Fritsch and Williams that she originally planned to insert a slideshow or an additional activity to round out her day.

Instead, Erwin used her time to help kids with lockers or talk with students sitting by themselves during lunch.

“You sit down with a kid and 10 more kids will come,” she said.

Teachers are also changing up their routines at Washington Elementary School.

For the first time, Principal Aimee VanNice said students will be placed in cross-grade small groups.

Second and third graders or fourth and fifth graders will intermingle in small groups based on their skill level, ensuring students will have 30 minutes of reading and math at their skill level.

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Contact Antonio Sierra at asierra@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0836.

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