About a half million metro Atlanta students in DeKalb, Gwinnett, Fulton and Clayton counties got a start or restart in school Monday, finding themselves in new classrooms, new schools, even a new country.
In Clayton County, Jonesboro High School freshman Marcus Wilkes said the first day of school is a new beginning. Each new school year is a chance for each student to create his or her own path.
“Going back to school as a ninth grader, it’s the first day deciding what the rest of my life is going to mean,” Wilkes said. “My favorite part of going back to school, right out of summer, is getting a fresh start. Any year, you can start a new reputation for yourself, no matter what happened last year.”
DeKalb’s Superintendent Steve Green started the day himself on a school bus, suprising some of the students and getting to meet some parents.
“It was a great experience,” he said.
One of his schools, the International Student Center, is a nontraditional DeKalb County School District school for immigrant and refugee students. Many speak limited English. The district has said its students speak more than 100 languages.
Located in Decatur near Covington Highway, the school gets students who need additional resources before moving on to the district’s traditional schools.
“It can take some time,” Principal Royce Toombs said Monday morning.
About 350 students, from third grade through ninth or 10th, were expected opening day. Toombs said about 1,000 students attended the school at some point during the 2016-2017 school year.
In one classroom, Gabriella Guiol spent about 10 minutes after introductions trying to get her students to take out notebooks and paper. She asked each of the six in her classroom, then provided what they did not have. In a traditional setting, it would have taken less than a minute.
“You have to be patient,” Toombs said.
In another class, Negial Kemp asked his students where they were from. The five students, in grades seven and eight, were from Ethiopia, Mexico, Guatemala, Tanzania, Venezuela.
In Gwinnett County school, students were getting a foreign language immersion of a different kind. Kindergartners in the Dual Language Immersion program at Level Creek Elementary School got their first experience with Spanish. And for the next 13 years, math, science and reading will be taught to these students in both languages.
Although this is the first year for the program at his school, Principal Daniel Skelton began preparing for this day two years ago.
“The county asked if we’d be interested in trying the program and we volunteered for it,” he said. “We spent the last year getting trained and observing the process in other schools.”
Parents are excited, too.
“There are so many benefits of being bilingual,” Jennifer Coffin said after she kissed daughter Alexis goodbye.
“It enhances creativity … and there’s a big cultural aspect,” she said. “Children develop empathy and learn more about the world.”
By lunchtime at Paul Duke STEM Academy, one of Gwinnett County’s newest schools, students, teachers and staff were getting into a groove — literally.
To ease some first-day jitters and build a sense of community, several faculty members started a line-dance during second lunch. As they kicked and showed off their moves, they invited students and anyone else nearby to join the “Cupid Shuffle.”
“That’s the kind of camaraderie we want to build throughout the year,” Principal Jonathon Wetherington said.
At Crabapple Middle School in Roswell, parents were still checking in their kids after the school’s late bell. They piled into the office, waiting patiently to send their kids off to their homeroom teacher.
Sitting at the front desk to help answer first-day questions was Fulton County parent Heather Sorensen. The Fulton County mom had already gotten her kids off to school for the day.
“My ninth grader was nervous about starting a new school,” said Sorensen. “My seventh grader was super excited. She loves the structure of her middle school and her teachers.”
Sorensen explained she’s been volunteering at the school for four years.
Seventh grade student, Tyjai Hopper admitted that his feelings were mixed about the first day back.
“I’m a little bit nervous,” said Hopper. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen my friends.”
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Denver Ellison contributed to this story