Our Back to School Story: Elementary School and Middle School at Great Hearts Academies

F.T. and G.N. at on the first day back to school at Great Hearts Academies for 2018-19 | San Antonio Charter Moms

What’s on my mind is our back to school story for 2018. My daughter, G.N., is starting third grade at Great Hearts Monte Vista South, and my son, F.T., is starting sixth grade at Great Hearts Monte Vista North. Some things are familiar and consistent since last year, but other circumstances are changing, and I wanted to take time to reflect on the experience.

F.T.’s Transition to Middle School

The biggest change this year is that F.T. is going to a different campus and attending middle school. As you may know, Great Hearts Monte Vista has two campuses: the Lower School, at Temple Beth-El, serves grades K–5, and the Upper School, at Trinity Baptist Church, serves grades 6–12. The other Great Hearts Texas campuses in San Antonio have all grades on one campus. F.T. started going to Great Hearts Monte Vista South in second grade in 2014; thanks to sibling preference, G.N. skipped the waiting list and enrolled in kindergarten in 2015.


Sixth grade locker at Great Hearts Monte Vista North | San Antonio Charter Moms

Have you ever had those bad dreams in which you are back in school, it’s the last day of the semester, you find out you were registered for a class you have never heard of, the exam is today, you can’t find your locker, and things just keep getting worse? I know so many people who still have those dreams, even into middle age.

The persistence of those anxious dreams was on my mind as I helped F.T. set up his locker. All of the adults around him—including the special education team—can try to set him up for success, but he is the one who is going to have to remember which binder to pick up and which textbook to bring to class.

New student orientation at Great Hearts Monte Vista North | San Antonio Charter Moms

Before school started, F.T. went to a half-day orientation with other new students, mostly fellow sixth graders. They learned about expectations, including wearing uniforms, following the academic honor code, participating in class discussions, and turning in homework. F.T. seemed attentive but not anxious, which is just about right. He needs to take it seriously but not stress out. Having friends with him who are in the same situation is helping.

G.N. Adjusting to Higher Expectations

After the first day of school, G.N. brought home her communication folder, and I noticed that the behavior chart looked different than last year’s. For grades K–2, the behavior chart is a continuum, and corresponds to the clip chart on the wall. On the behavior chart, a clothespin with the child’s name starts the day on “Ready to Learn” and gets clipped up or down based on the child’s behavior that day. For grades 3–5, the clip chart is gone, and the communication folder has places for the teacher to mark down infractions such as “interfering with learning.”

G.N. at Meet the Teacher at Great Hearts Monte Vista | San Antonio Charter Moms

G.N. is the kind of student who is generally aware of her surroundings and what the teachers expect of her, so I don’t expect to see many infractions this year. Still, the new chart reminded me that she is going into third grade and the standards are different. I remember F.T’s third grade experience: the literature books got more challenging, the poems to memorize were longer, the math problems were more ambitious, and the independent study projects were more complex.

Great Hearts Monte Vista book fair at Barnes & Noble | San Antonio Charter Moms

Planning for a Good School Year

We are making preparations now, at the beginning of the school year, to put the odds in our favor that it will be a good school year.

For F.T., the challenge is organization. He now has six classes to keep track of. Each class meets in a different room, has its own syllabus, requires different supplies, and will have different homework assignments to enter into his planner. My strategy is to give him room to try, and to make mistakes, but to monitor his work and get him back on track before he gets too far behind. In the first week of school, he had trouble remembering to bring home all the notebooks he needed to do his homework over the weekend. However, over the weekend, we spent some time re-organizing his binders, and he seemed more able to remember his materials. Fortunately, there are caring adults on campus, as well as older students who serve as mentors, who can help him stay calm, get what he needs, and then go to his next class in a good frame of mind.

F.T.'s Latin book covered with a brown paper bag from HEB Central Market and Duck Brand tape | San Antonio Charter Moms

For both kids, we are taking care of their health with plenty of sleep, exercise, and good food. Towards the end of summer, we moved bedtimes and wake up times earlier. Even though the weather is still summer-hot, we make time to play outside every day. Sometimes we go to a playground in the early morning or at dusk, or an indoor play place like We Rock the Spectrum, Hang, or Altitude, or staying cool at the pool or the Family Adventure Garden at the San Antonio Botanical Garden. For food, the kids are learning to put together balanced meals with plenty of protein. The school has a new lunch provider, and the kids are taking the initiative to look ahead at the menu and decide whether to buy lunch at school or pack their own lunches.

When I pick up F.T. from school, then drive over to G.N.’s school and pick her up, I notice that they seem tired, but they are still excited to tell me about their days at school. G.N. is memorizing a poem, “Preparedness” by Edwin Markham, that has a timely message.

"Preparedness" by Edwin Markham | San Antonio Charter Moms

While G.N. was practicing her recitation in the car, on the way to school, F.T. remembered learning that poem back when he was in third grade. That reminded me that F.T. has the preparation for middle school. Also, he has a group of friends who have been together for several years now, as well as some new students who are becoming friends, too. G.N.’s tales of her first day back to school were about seeing her friends again—they had missed each other over the summer.

The back-to-school time has me reflecting on our experience at Great Hearts since 2014 and thinking about our hopes for the 2018–19 school year. I re-watched the commencement address that Andrew Ellison, Executive Director of Great Hearts San Antonio, delivered at the Great Hearts Monte Vista North graduation ceremony in 2018, for the first Great Hearts graduating class in Texas.

All of the small steps we take every day—packing lunches, checking planners, etc.—are building towards a brighter future for our children. I want F.T. and G.N. to continue to become more independent. I have high expectations for what they can learn this year and how they can mature. Also, I hope they have fun and make memories with their friends. Maybe they will start trading insults in Latin, too.

What are your hopes for the 2018–19 school year? Leave a comment and share!

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Inga Cotton

Parent activist and founder of San Antonio Charter Moms. Raising two children to be independent adults who do good in the world.