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Spirits high as school year begins (Video, photo gallery)




Aug. 12 was the first day of classes for schools across the District, and if students were excited, they had a kindred spirit in CEO Eric Gordon.

 “It’s the first day of school; I think that ought to be a national holiday,” Gordon said. “It is for me. It’s one of my favorite days of the year.”

The CEO stopped at 11 schools and answered questions from reporters. He talked up the new Say Yes to Education scholarship program and laid out three District goals for the year: Continue making academic gains, establish a standard of excellence in operations like cleaning and food service, and maintain CMSD’s financial health.

In schools on both sides of town, the mood was light. Riverside School literally rolled out a red carpet lined with velvet ropes; a DJ played pop hits as students arrived.

“We want to make it an event,” Assistant Principal Heather Kama-Starr said. “We really want to set the tone for an awesome, positive school year.”

Two seniors at the John Marshall School of Information Technology greeted their last year at a CMSD school with a mix of exhilaration and anxiety. Jonah Medina said internships and other jobs had seniors feeling “more professional” and “grown up,” but Remi Perez acknowledged being “nervous for the next step.”

Waverly School students returned to a new building that was finished over the summer as part of a continuing District modernization program paid for with state funds and a local bond issue. The West 57thStreet school is full of large touch screens and features like open spaces designed for teamwork.

“Being in a new space just makes you feel good,” said Principal Sommer Edwards-Fountain, who presided over a ribbon cutting last week. “Everybody is coming in happy, happy and excited to be here.”

At Whitney M. Young PreK-8 School, CMSD staff and volunteers cheered and clapped as students entered. In the group were the pastors and members from Affinity Baptist Church and Lee Road Baptist Church.

Affinity, located at East 175th Street and Miles Ave., recently became Whitney Young’s community partner, a relationship the school had been lacking. Principal Ivy Wheeler said having Affinity adopt the school is “huge for us," adding that the church is already making plans to collect uniforms for children  and have older students help at the church food bank.

“We are doing this to support the children of our community and support the teachers and educators,” Pastor Ronald Maxwell said. We feel a calling to community, whether that be here or in communities around the world.”

Sunbeam School is starting its first full school year in a new building, a sprawling one-story structure that was custom designed for a portion of the enrollment made up of students who are “medically fragile” or have special needs.

The building opened in the spring, but demolition of the old Sunbeam next door held up completion of outdoor tasks. Workers laid asphalt for a bus loop over the weekend before school began and the District is running a shuttle for teachers from the nearby Benjamin Rose Institute until their parking area is ready.

Jessica Humphrey, a first-time principal, said she was prepared for challenges by a year in CMSD’s grueling Aspiring Principals Academy. She walked briskly through the halls on the first day but stopped abruptly after encountering a teary eyed fifth-grade boy who had just transferred in.

“This is your first day? I’m new, too,” she said. “I’m the principal. We’re in this together.”

Like 12 other CMSD PreK- or K-8 schools, Sunbeam is in the second year of implementing one of three models in which students lead instruction. They pose, research and answer their own questions while teachers facilitate.

Nikki Hyrnyak, a fourth-grade math and science teacher at Sunbeam, is using the inquiry-based learning method for the first time. She said she was excited to let students take control of their own learning but also nervous.

 “It’s a good nervous,” she said. “The model is about learning and ‘failing forward.’ The only way to actually fail is to not try.”

In another part of the school, Xavier McDaniel crowded with a couple of other parents into the doorway of a first-grade classroom where his daughter, Xarria will spend the year. Pleased with the teacher’s introduction, he flashed a thumbs-up to his wife, Courtney, who was sitting nearby handling babysitting duty.

“We wanted to meet her teacher, get a feel for the classroom and see how things are running,” Courtney said. “Things are running pretty well.”

On Castle Avenue on the  West Side, new Principal Samuel Román was in front of Luis Muñoz Marin Dual Language Academy to greet students and their families. He plans to provide parents with his District cell number so they can text or call him when necessary.

“I want to make myself available to parents,” said Román, who previously served 27 years as a teacher and four years as a program manager and coach in CMSD’s Multilingual Multicultural Department. “If we take good care of our families and support our families, attendance improves, achievement improves, everything else improves.”