Jessica Turner started her second first day as principal of Helmwood Heights Elementary School by dropping off school supplies.

“I’m more at ease this year,” she said.

About 2,300 Eliza­bethtown Independent Schools students returned to school Wed­nesday. For Helmwood Heights, the first day starts a new Culture of Learning initiative, Turner said.

“Our goal is to put students in the drivers’ seats and give children ownership over their learning,” she said.

Through teaching goal-setting and healthy habits, Turner said the school is focusing on the whole child and changing the school’s culture around learning.

“We feel like if we focus there first, academic achievement will follow,” she said.

Nearly 20,000 students headed back to class. Look back at The News-Enterprise's coverage here.

Improving school culture also is a priority for Dawne Swank, principal at T.K. Stone Middle School. Swank, too, began her second year as principal Wednesday.

“Last year, the first day was such a blur,” Swank said as she walked the hallways.

During the school-day’s first passing period, Swank answered questions and helped sixth-graders find their next class.

“I can help,” she told students. “I know things.”

For the sixth-grad­ers and other new students, Swank started a week-long orientation program. Students learn school policies and expectations, practice opening their lockers and receive a building tour. The goal, she said, is to ease students into middle school.

“It’s so intimidating to be coming into a new school,” Swank said.

New to students this year is an intervention and enrichment block that has been built into the daily class schedule, Swank said. The “What I Need” block will be a time for students to receive additional help and to incorporate a new social and emotional learning program.

The program, Second Steps, is designed for middle-schoolers and teaches proactive coping skills. Swank said the school will use the program for five years.

“We’re hoping to see a decrease in behavioral referrals,” she said.

Implementing Second Steps is a key goal for Swank.

“You’ve got to create climate and culture,” she said. “You can’t teach curriculum until you do that.”

At Helmwood Heights, Turner said the staff also is focused on building relationships.

“No significant learning occurs without first a significant relationship,” she said.

As part of the new initiative, Turner and school staff want students to know it’s OK to make mistakes and how to persevere.

Turner worked with school staff over the summer to make a Grit Wall. Clipboards hung on the wall will display the work of students who persevered and showed grit.

“It will be a huge deal to make the Grit Wall,” she said. “ ... I hope we have to add more boards.”

Another hallway display showcases Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” such as being proactive and synergize.

All in all, the initiative includes adopting a growth mindset approach, teaching seven habits, goal-setting and changing parent-teacher conferences.

Students will lead parent-teacher conferences, Turner said.

“When we leave students out of those conversations, they don’t have ownership,” she said.

She hoped students would have greater awareness about their learning and take more pride in their work. Leading the conferences also will help with public speaking, she said.

Teachers started working on the initiative over the summer, but Wed­nes­day was the kick-off for students.

“We’re asking them to just get started,” she said. “We’ll go deeper year by year.”

Katherine Knott can be reached at 270-505-1747 or

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