WEST SPRINGFIELD — You have to hand it to students at Mittineague Elementary School. They’ve been accomplishing great things for more than a decade, and they have handprints on the walls to prove it.

At a School Committee public hearing in December, several students and parents mentioned those handprints as examples of the unique school culture and community that would be lost if Mittineague were closed. In January, the committee voted to close the school, which serves grades 1-5, at the end of this school year. A petition effort, which announced on Feb. 8 that it had collected enough signatures, hopes to force the board to reverse its decision, or put the matter to a public vote.

In the meantime, traditions continue at the town’s smallest and oldest current elementary school. The school has what Principal Mike Atkins calls three expectations — to be safe, responsible and kind. Teachers and the administration salute students who personify those expectations by letting them color their hands with paint and making handprints on the walls.

“I earned my handprint by improving my attendance. I used to be tardy a lot, but now I get to school on time every day. I’m proud of my handprint because I’ve been working really hard for a long time to earn one,” said fifth grader Sophia Rodriquez.

There are hundreds of handprints — and thousands of fingerprints — all over the school. Students make them on walls outside their current or favorite classroom. There are some in the cafeteria and stairwells. Students have even pressed their painted hands on the walls in Atkins’ office.

Teachers nominate students for the recognition on a pink form. The principal enters the student’s classroom, pink paper in hand, and prepares to tell the class whose hand will be next on the wall.

“If I walk into the room and I have a pink piece of paper in my hand, the whole class stops because they’re just so excited, not just for themselves but for somebody being recognized. There’s a lot of energy around it,” said Atkins.

Diane Doe made her imprint on the school in 2010 when she was principal and started the recognition program. Students from that era — now college graduates and adults in the workforce — still come back to Mittineague to find their tiny print just where they left it.

Each year, by tradition, graduating students from West Springfield High School, wearing caps and gowns, return to Mittineague, visit their handprints and take selfies in front of the good impressions they made years ago.

One student who attends Mittineague these days has his handprint on the wall because he saw a first grader, whom he know would normally be accompanied by an older sibling, walking alone. He caught up with the child and escorted her home.

Fifth grader Addison LaBarre created a cozy corner with lights where students could have some private time to read.

“I got my handprint from making a reading nook and helping younger students,” she said. “I’m proud of my handprint because it shows I did something special and people appreciate it.”

Atkins said students are energized by seeing handprints all around them, inspired to meet expectations and achieve their own distinction. They work hard, many children making conscious efforts to earn their handprints because it’s a family affair.

“Students will say they’re working towards handprints and want them to appear next to their brother’s or sister’s,” said Atkins.

“This is something that will never go away. It will be here today, tomorrow and years down the road. It’s something they can show their parents when they’re in the building,” he said.

There are many recognition and award programs for children who receive badges, ribbons, certificates and trophies. But Atkins says handprints on the wall are making a lasting impression.

“It’s literally a life-changing experience they carry with them,” he said. “I know that it has a huge impact. It’s something that will stick with them and is very special.”

There are no plans to paint over the prints. Atkins pledged to the keep colorful creations on the walls as long as the school is standing.

Staasi Heropoulos
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