New London — An influx of parents and their fussy, sleepy-eyed children waited outside, in the cafeteria and in the hallways of the former Harbor Elementary School Wednesday morning as the chaos of the first day of school was magnified by three issues: unfamiliar bus pick-up and drop-off locations, unknown homeroom assignments and missing medical clearances.
Through all the first-day jitters and disorganization, there was a constant: Nathan Hale Elementary School Principal Donna Slate.
Immediately taking charge — sometimes using a megaphone — she faced annoyed parents and wiped the tears of anxious children, all with grace and tact.
Moving quickly through a line of parents who had questions about their child's bus route and why their child didn't have a locker or a homeroom assignment, Slate answered and moved to the next.
"It was like a 5-to-1 ratio," Slate, a fifth-year principal, joked after most of the students had settled into their classrooms. "That's why I'm principal. I run a pretty tight ship. You have to."
This year, students from Nathan Hale, Harbor School and the closed St. Mary Star of the Sea School were blended into the former Harbor School building as the city prepares for the opening of the last of three elementary magnet schools.
Last year, Nathan Hale students were housed in portable classrooms. They are waiting for the completion of the new Nathan Hale School, which is scheduled to open in the fall of 2013.
However, Superintendent of Schools Nicholas A. Fischer said Wednesday that the move-in date has been pushed back to the first half of 2014 because asbestos was discovered in the Nathan Hale school building and must be removed.
This year, unlike other years, New London's schools opened under the watchful eye of the state Department of Education. The State Board of Education in June voted to intervene in the struggling school district and appoint a special master to oversee district operations for one year.
Wednesday, fifth-grader Ashley Smith ate her breakfast in the cafeteria while weighing her excitement.
"I'm kind of sad to be back at school," Ashley said, reflecting on a summer trip to New York, "but I'm excited to meet up with my friends and meet my teacher."
About 150 new students and their parents converged at the 104-year-old school building on Montauk Avenue. A large group of kindergartners stood on the lawn.
Before school started, Kayla Mettler and her mother, Caitlyn, exchanged many long good-byes.
"Love you, Kayla."
"Love you, Mom."
The 4-year-old, with a Disney princess backpack strapped to her shoulders, soon marched off with Ms. Jennifer Alexander's class.
"She's excited because she loves her school. She's very friendly, she likes making new friends," Mettler said.
The Board of Education approved a magnet school plan for the district in 2008, which included closing Harbor and Edgerton elementary schools and turning the remaining three into magnet schools with specialties in dual language, science and technology, and the arts.
C.B. Jennings was completely renovated and re-opened in 2008 as the dual language school. A newly renovated Winthrop School opened in January after its students were also shuffled around for three years. When Winthrop opened, construction started on Nathan Hale, which will open as a school for performing and visual arts.