Among the tens of thousands of students and educators who will walk through the doors of Boise schools Monday, Aug. 27, perhaps the biggest smile will belong to Paula Bell--a woman who taught at Meridian Elementary School for 10 years, served as a school counselor in Meridian and Boise for eight more, was vice principal of Liberty, Riverside and Trail Wind elementary schools and principal of Madison Elementary before becoming principal of Lowell Elementary nine years ago.
It never gets old; apparently, neither does she. With the enthusiasm of someone half her age, her voice bumps up an octave as she breaks into an ear-to-ear grin, thinking of the first day of school.
"The moment I see those kids ... that's what it's all about for me," said Bell. "I can't wait to see my 200 babies walk through the door."
Granted, some of those "babies" are as old as 12, but Bell adores every one of them, even the troublemakers, whom she affectionately calls "frequent fliers."
"Even the frequent fliers give you a hug," she said. "That first day, there are some tears, some laughter and inevitably somebody asks, 'Paula, there's still a kid outside. Could you pry him out from the car?'"
Across town, West Junior High Principal Tim Standlee said, "There's no lack of energy for the first day.
"A lot of hormones. A lot of energy. A lot of fun," said Standlee. "The seventh-graders are so nervous about dealing with lockers and moving around to each class while the eighth-graders are full of courage and the ninth-graders think they're the top dogs."
That is until they hit high school, as Jon Ruzicka, principal of Capital High School, knows all too well.
"By the time junior-high kids merge into high school, we're all part of the same team," said Ruzicka. "I truly believe that all high-school kids show up on that first day thinking, 'I'm going to get an "A" this year. I'm really going to do it.' Now, sometimes things get in the way of those goals, but I have to tell you: There's a lot of excitement that fills our building, and we've got a really big building."
Far fewer than six degrees separate the trio of Bell, Ruzicka and Standlee, who are all connected by more than simply being principals in Idaho's second-largest school district (behind Meridian).
"One of my heroes when I was growing up was ..." Standlee didn't even have to finish his sentence before Bell knew he was talking about her husband, Gerald, who is (you guessed it)also a principal, at Collister Elementary.
"Gerald was just becoming a student teacher when I was a kid. He was an inspiration. And of course, there's my dad," said Standlee, referring to his father, Doug, a longtime (right again) principal in the Boise School District.
In fact, Ruzicka was Doug Standlee's assistant principal at Capital High School before Ruzicka took the reigns in 2003, following Standlee's retirement.
"Just to make this full circle, Paula's husband, Gerald, and I were teachers together at Centennial High School," said Ruzicka. "That was my first teaching job in 1987. Boy was that an eye-opener. I had graduated from a small school in Grangeville with 92 kids. I ended up teaching that many in just two periods of math at Centennial."
Today, Ruzicka is responsible for approximately 1,400 students as principal of Capital. Standlee estimates that he has 915 students at West and Bell said that she has 320.
"I'm pretty sure that I have the coolest cross-section of Boise," said Bell. "I have kids from 23 countries; we have a pretty large refugee population. Plus, we're a Title One school, so we have a number of low-income families, we have a good amount of single-parent families and we have North End professional families. That's a lot of diversity. It's really representative of how Boise is changing as a city."
Ruzicka said tough economic times have added undue pressure to 21st century schoolkids.
"Big kids have big problems," said Ruzicka. "Lost jobs--maybe three or four families living under one roof. Now, how can they study for a biology exam in a home with four families there? We have to be really smart about dealing with some of those issues as our students walk through our door."
Standlee echoed Ruzicka's scenario.
"We see the same thing. That's why we've totally restructured our day to include nine periods," said Standlee. "Our ninth period specifically targets the need of each student, so that we can offer resources for their homework."
Even Bell's Lowell Elementary students have a need for what they call the "homework club."
"We offer it five days a week," said Bell. "These kids may not have a quiet place to work at home."
Bell, Ruzicka and Standlee all admitted to breathing a long sigh of relief when Boise voters overwhelmingly approved a five-year, $70 million levy in March in order to maintain class sizes.
"I really didn't know how nervous I was about it until we got word that the levy had passed," said Ruzicka. "That was remarkable, extraordinary."
Standlee credited school district administration and parents for waging an education-based campaign.
"From the get-go, the district approached the vote in a very wise manner," said Standlee. "They way they did it was so impressive."
The drama of the campaign aside, Bell said she was anxious to "get back to business."
But the best-laid plans for the first day of school can quickly evaporate.
"You plan and you plan and you plan," said Standlee. "And just when you have it mapped out, it will hit you up on the side of the head."