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New London — The kindergartners sitting on the rug in front of teacher Rachel Diaz-Evans as she read a picture book to them in Spanish on Monday glanced over their shoulders at their parents, who were watching from the back of the classroom.
The book, “Un Beso en mi Mano” or “The Kissing Hand,” tells the tale of a young raccoon apprehensive about starting school but whose anxiety is calmed when his mother gives him a kiss on his hand.
At the end of the book, Diaz-Evans gave each student in the dual-language class a Hershey’s Kiss to put in their parent’s hand and told them to say goodbye for the day. And after a few student and parent tears, the first day of school was underway at the district’s new Early Childhood Center at Harbor School.
District administrator Miriam Taylor, who is serving as interim early childhood coordinator, greeted students and parents in the school’s cafeteria Monday morning and got several hugs from Adan Ali, who was ready to start her first day of pre-K.
“I’m very excited. It’s the first day of my child’s schooling,” said Adan’s father, Shahzeb Ali. “She is really excited, too. Last year she started asking when she would start school.”
In some cases, the students were more excited than their parents.
“He’s excited to start,” Stacey Nunez said of her son, Xavion White, “but I’m going to cry.”
The more-than-100-year-old Harbor School, vacant last year, was renovated this summer and now houses six kindergarten classrooms — including two bilingual dual-language classes like the one Diaz-Evans teaches — and two half-day pre-K classrooms.
“We want to build a foundation here,” Taylor said. “We are going to make sure the attention level is age-appropriate, develop language skills, build basic concepts and foster peer relationships. All of that has to start here to support learning as the kids get older.”
Because of an increase in enrollment at the district’s magnet elementary schools, kindergarten classes from each school were relocated to the Early Childhood Center. Each magnet pathway is represented at the center and students are guaranteed a spot at their designated magnet school next year, Taylor said.
“The school will have a bit of the flavor of each pathway,” she said. “The students will be exposed to the same curriculum as at the other schools, but the needs of kindergartners are different from those of first- or second-graders and here we will be able to address those individual needs faster and better.”
Aside from a few “minor glitches” that tend to happen on the first day, the new school year for the district’s roughly 3,277 students got off to a smooth start, said interim Superintendent Richard Foye.
“All the schools looked good and the reports I’ve received are that all the schools are operating well with no major issues,” Foye said Monday afternoon. “I’m very pleased with the extraordinary effort everybody has put in. There have been some negative things out there about New London schools over the last month or so and I think the teachers dug in and said, ‘we’re going to have a great opening for the students’ so they focused in on that and it appears that we’re having good results.”
Foye will guide the district through October as the Board of Education decides what to do about Terrence P. Carter, whom the board unanimously selected as the city’s next superintendent before media reports revealed that his job application contained material apparently copied from other sources without attribution and that he had possibly been misrepresenting his academic record.
The school system also begins this year with new leaders at the Science and Technology Magnet High School and C.B. Jennings Elementary School. Laurelle Texidor, who had been principal at Jennings, is now director of the STEM high school. Maribel Olivero, formerly the dean of students at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School, has replaced Texidor as principal of Jennings.
The district will again have the benefit this year of funding from the state Alliance District program, a key component of state’s school reform efforts which funnels money to 30 traditionally low-performing school districts throughout the state, including New London and Norwich.
New London will receive $2,736,953 in funding this school year, the state announced last week.
And while the 180-day school year is just getting underway, students can begin to count down the days until June 5, which will be the last day of school barring any cancellations.