The little boy on the very first day of kindergarten was outside on the patio, painting. The teacher went out to see how he was doing, and noticed the whole piece of paper he was painting on was covered in black.
She thought, “Oh dear,” so she said to him; “Jack, tell me about your painting.”
His eyes lit up as he said, “It’s my surprise birthday party before they turned on the lights.”
That is one of many delightful stories Dona Pollacchi has stored away in her memory after teaching for 37 years. She is preparing to retire this year. For 27 of those years, she taught kindergarten at Holy Spirit School in Land Park.
“I have enjoyed my job and I think that is truly a blessing,” Pollacchi said. “I have been able to do what I am passionate about, teaching and having a good time with children at school.”
Pollacchi told of how her own first grade teacher and her grandmother influenced her love of education. The teacher divided the class into three reading groups: the bluebirds, the redbirds and the yellowbirds.
Pollacchi ended up in the redbirds. She knew right away that was not the group to be in and when she got home she told her grandmother how she wanted to be a bluebird because it was the advanced reading group.
Her grandmother told her she was smart and to ask the teacher if she could bring her book home. Pollacchi was allowed to bring the book home and her grandmother worked with her reading skills. Pollacchi was moved up to the bluebirds.
Pollacchi said, as a six-year-old, she didn’t think she was aware that she wanted to become a teacher, but she remembers being proud that she had accomplished the goal that her grandmother had helped her achieve. From that point, on she truly enjoyed school.
Pollacchi later learned that her grandmother, who was born in 1890 in New Jersey, had become a teacher at the age of 15. Her grandmother’s first teaching assignment was at an Indian reservation in New Mexico. Pollacchi thought that was a brave thing to do at such a young age.
“I really think it was my destiny to become a teacher also,” Pollacchi said. “Paths have aligned ever since then.”
Besides teaching, Pollacchi’s other passion is music. Music was her favorite class in the fourth grade. She took up the violin, then the flute in the eighth grade and continued with music in high school and at Sacramento State, where she met her husband, who also studied music. They have been married for 38 years and have two sons.
Jane Dolcini, secretary at Holy Spirit, said the parents at Holy Spirit have many fond memories of Mrs. Pollacchi. Their fondest memories are of the music she brought to Holy Spirit. They remember her saying, “A day without music is like a day without sunshine.”
“She always produced wonderful Christmas pageants and took our school choirs at Christmas time to sing at the State Capitol, Downtown Plaza and Arden Fair Mall,” Dolcini said. “Her Kindergarten Arts Festival had a speaking and or singing part for every single kindergartner and they all knew their parts.”
Dolcini said many of Pollacchi’s classes would go on a field trip to Davis to the Explorit Science Museum and then returned to Sacramento by train. This was the first time most of the kids had been on a train and they all thought that was cool.
After teaching for so many years, Pollacchi has not lost her enthusiasm or her passion for teaching.
“The kindergarteners are fresh and enthusiastic about school, which is how I feel, fresh and enthusiastic about school,” Pollacchi said.
Pollacchi has seen some changes over the years. Children seem worldlier, more sophisticated and more academic. She said there is a lot of pressure on preschoolers to learn their ABCs and numbers. The one thing that hasn’t changed is how much they can learn – they are like sponges.
“When I ask a question, I always get two hands raised,” she laughed. “The curriculum is much more structured. I have the same state standards as public schools, but I can be more creative the way I teach and that suits me so well because I love singing and drawing and story books.”
Pollacchi has always had anywhere from 36 to 37 kindergarteners. This year, she has 33 children in her class. Early in the year Pollacchi sets classroom expectations, and she said she expects a lot from her students.
She has four simple rules:
1. You must be respectful and kind to everyone;
2. You must do your very best work at all times;
3. You must follow the teacher’s directions; and
4. You must keep your school and environment clean and healthy.
Pollacchi prefers positive reinforcement and would spend six weeks teaching her expectations. All of the rules were taught in a positive framework.
“If I don’t lay it out for them what I expect, how can I expect them to achieve it?” Pollacchi said.
Pollacchi has two positive reinforcements she uses in the classroom.
One is for the whole class to follow and the other is based on the individual child. If the class follows the rules, Pollacchi drops a marble noisily into a glass jar. When it is full, the class is rewarded with a popcorn party. This teaches children how to cooperate and how to follow rules.
The other reinforcement is based on individual accomplishments of the child.
“With 33 children, if they become a little too noisy, sometimes I just tell them to close their eyes because I have noticed their eyes are connected to their tongues and this works when I can’t get their attention,” Pollacchi said. “It calms them down and pulls them out of the situation they are in.”
Pollacchi’s favorite activity, the Arts Festival, is coming up soon. She is putting on four musical plays. This way she has both of her passions, music and teaching, satisfied and fed.
Pollacchi said that, like Steve Jobs, she believes, “When you decide what you want to do with your life, choose something that you’re passionate about. You will be more successful at your job and you will feel like your life has been a success as well.”
Pollacchi has a sense of humor too. She bought herself an Easy Button at Staples this year, so that at the end of every day she can push the button and it says, “That was easy.”
Pollacchi said one of the many reasons she remained a kindergarten teacher is the gratification she received at the end of each year.
“When the children show up in August, they can’t tie their shoes, they can’t put their belt buckle together, they can’t write their name the right way, they can’t sit in a chair without falling out, sitting on the rug involves all fours and crawling and they can’t sit on the rug and manage their hands and pay attention to the teacher,” she said. “At the end of the year they are able to read, do math, draw, sing, listen to a story, use higher level thinking skills and answer questions about what they are learning, and write in their journals. It’s an easy grade for a teacher to get her kudos, because you look out and say, ‘Look what I have created in nine months.’ They amaze me.”
Dolcini said many parents say they are amazed at how Dona gets most of the kids reading at the first grade level by the time they leave her kindergarten.
“She has taught families that have sent three generations of kids to Holy Spirit School,” Dolcini said. “We have grandparents that went here (she didn’t teach them) but she taught their kids and now is teaching their kids.”
Dolcini said Pollacchi is firm and can be stern at times but is always compassionate, encouraging, consistent, dedicated and devoted to the education of the children, music and to her religion. She always has a smile on her face.
Mrs. Pollacchi has definitely made her mark on Holy Spirit Parish School.