- Associated Press - Saturday, July 15, 2017

HIGHLAND SPRINGS, Va. (AP) - It had all the trappings of the first day of school - buses pulling up, parents with bouncing children in tow, and the frenetic but ordered energy of getting all the students to their assigned classrooms for the first time.

The activity at Highland Springs Elementary School was familiar, save that it was July and most other Henrico County schoolchildren were in the depths of summer break.

Also new was the waiting assembly line of adults who greeted the children with a firm handshake as they crossed into the school.

“Other hand, baby,” guided director of operations Kate Puschak when one girl extended her left hand.

“Eye contact,” Puschak and the other adults - including uniformed law enforcement officers and the county’s fire chief - reminded softly when a child did not meet their gaze.

It was one of the signature features of An Achievable Dream Academy on display for the program’s debut at Highland Springs on Monday. The school model, which focuses on equipping at-risk students with social and moral skills in addition to academic ones, incorporates a four-week summer intersession, longer school days and uniforms.

About 220 students in kindergarten through second grade at Highland Springs are part of the pilot program in Henrico.

The county’s School Board approved a five-year public-private partnership with An Achievable Dream Certified Academies Inc. in January and plans to expand the program by one grade level each year.

Principal Shawnya Tolliver said the first days will be spent acclimating students to the school model. They will participate in a morning session during which they recite positive affirmations and take classes throughout the school year on conflict resolution, etiquette and speech.

The school’s cafeteria was updated with banners that offer encouraging words like “Believe in Yourself” and such wisdom as “I Will Say No to Drugs.”

“It’s been a dream come true for me,” Tolliver said.

As Samantha Olvera waited outside the school with her 7-year-old daughter, Malaya, on Monday, she said her initial apprehension about the program subsided once she learned more about its goals.

She likes the additional extracurricular offerings - students will join clubs such as baking, golf and dance - and the added focus on behavior that working parents may not have time to teach.

“A lot of parents are single parents, are working and, you know, when they come home, it’s really time for bath, bed, that’s it.”

Malaya, who wore colorful beads in her braided hair and carried a lunchbox with characters from the animated movie “Zootopia,” was likewise excited.

“I saw the videos and I liked it,” she said, adding that she’s looking forward to potentially learning ballet at school.

Another parent, Lakeisha Walker, said she appreciates that the students remain part of the academy as they move from one grade level to the next. It’s easy, she said, for kids to lose the guidance they’re given early on as they age and make friends.

Uniform shirts had yet to be distributed, so school officials advised parents to dress their kids in navy bottoms and solid-colored tops. Walker’s son, King, was already fully uniformed in a white top, navy blue shorts, white socks and black shoes.

The 5-year-old shyly shook the adults’ hands before his mom walked him to class. After seeing him off, Walker pronounced, “It’s going to be a good school year.”

Not all of the students enrolled at Highland Springs last year returned for the Achievable Dream Academy. About 30 students opted out of the program and instead will attend Fair Oaks Elementary School. Puschak, the director of operations and former associate principal at Donahoe Elementary School, said parents mostly cited conflicts with child care.

The Highland Springs site is the fourth academy of its kind in the state - two operate in Newport News and one in Virginia Beach.

About 8:30 a.m., once the morning rush quieted and students found their way into classrooms, Puschak’s voice broke across the intercom.

After the Pledge of Allegiance and a moment of silence, she led the students in a social, academic and moral pledge. They repeated after her, ending with:

“I am kind.”

“I am smart.”

“I am important.”

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