Riverside Elementary School sets up classrooms

In the days leading up to the first day of school Sept. 7, Riverside Elementary School staff has been busy at work. Between the recent influx in enrollment numbers, the spur-of-the-moment search for a third-grade teacher and a new principal at the helm, Riverside is looking at a year of change and, from the look of its “family” the week before school, it’s going to be good.

“I’ve been fortunate to start in summer,” said Principal Valerie Ulrich sitting cheerfully at a communal table in the center of her office. “It’s enabled me to get to know things in my timeframe while school is not in session. I’ve been able to get to know everyone, to talk to people as long as they wanted to talk. The teachers, the administration, the families – they’ve all been very welcoming.”

While Ulrich seems to get more from the community than from office time, she keeps a couple staples around as she sets up shop in her new academic digs. In the corner of the room, noticeable as soon as one enters, her sons, Carl, 13, and Eric, 11, peer out at visitors from a young photo taken on the beach. It’s a photo Ulrich says keeps her grounded. Another office staple is the book, “It’s a Fine, Fine School,” by Harry Bliss. Ulrich loves to read it to the kids.

Beth Tolin, a second-grade teacher of 21 years, has used most of her summer to clean out the classroom. There with her son Matthew, a Riverside fifth grader, Tolin was placing the finishing touches on the classroom.

“Now that I’m done cleaning out every door, cabinet and book bin, I am just getting ready for the kids,” Tolin said as she put together pencil boxes labeled for each student and packed with colorful crayons she buys herself.

The hallways of the school – lined with flags from every country to promote diversity – served as a network for teachers and staff to ready for the first day. Custodians Ryan Weigand and Renold Cherilus moved a piano to the cafeteria where it will remain for harmonious lunches. Computer technician Michael Remoli rolled his cart full of wires around to reconnect each classroom. Science teacher Mark Eastburn watered the Venus Flytraps in the garden. The physical education and health teacher, Alison Unkert, who was until this year Riverside’s instructional assistant, set up mats in the gym and occupied a troupe of teachers’ kids while their parents bustled about.

In the library, Librarian Liz Lein stood behind a tower of books – only a handful of the 500 she recently purchased – and stamped them with the Riverside name for the new year. She also spent her time preparing by curating books for teacher requests, such as plant books or author study materials for first grade.

Only weeks ago, the administration hired a third-grade teacher to balance out the high number of students. Katherine Solovay took the position.

“Katherine is a real find,” Ulrich said. “She’s returning to teaching full time after staying at home with her children. We’re lucky to have her.”

Solovay’s classroom was transformed from a teacher’s study area and gave the impression she’d been there for weeks setting up.

“I couldn’t have done it without the other teachers,” she said. “They donated this whole library of books to me.”

Solovay prepared the room with her husband Matt by her side, who heads the Princeton Police Department’s K-9 Unit, and their two sons, Cameron, 4, and Charlie, 6.

About Erica Chayes Wida

Erica Chayes Wida is a writer, mom, and complete zealot when it comes to poetry, paella and globe collections. After graduating with a degree in Anthropology from UCLA, Erica moved to Italy where the seasons and old architecture inspired her journey back to the East Coast. Since then, she and her husband have created a nest egg locally and, over time, developed a rather grand love affair with the town of Princeton. Erica is senior editor at The Princeton Sun and enjoys fulfilling her Princeton affections on a daily basis. | View all posts by Erica Chayes Wida