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Deion Searles woke up around 6:30 a.m. on Tuesday to get dressed, eat a hearty breakfast, and wait for a van to come and take him to his first day of high school.
Deion, a new freshman at the Newark School of Data Science and Information Technology, receives special education services and rides the district-provided shuttle van to get to school every day. Last September, his mother, Veronica Searles, spent $80 on Lyft after her son’s transportation never arrived on the first two days of school.
This year, a large sign that read “Congrats Grad” hung by the table in the kitchen – a reminder that Deion “graduated” from middle school. The 14-year-old felt a mix of emotions as he savored his eggs, bacon, and toast.
“I’m nervous but that nervousness is going away,” said Deion in between bites, noting that he had gone to a summer orientation so “I kind of know how the school looks and like what to expect.”
At 7:35 a.m., his van arrived. Deion grabbed his red and black backpack, put on his glasses, and walked out the door.
“His van came! That’s already a great start to the year,” said Veronica as the shuttle drove away.
Deion joins more than 38,000 students returning to Newark Public Schools this morning — some sporting new backpacks like him, others showing off new uniforms. This year, district officials continue to deal with the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, three years after it first disrupted learning and took a toll on students academically and emotionally.
As Newark students return to class on Tuesday, officials are hoping summer initiatives such as high-dosage tutoring aimed at helping those who have fallen behind will improve student performance this school year. This summer, roughly 10,000 students were in need of mandatory summer school, double the number from last year.
School leaders will also have to confront some of the district’s most pressing concerns such as improving schools, raising attendance rates, refining reading and literacy skills, boosting low test scores, and grappling with the impacts of harassment and diversity issues affecting students and employees in city schools.
In addition to tutoring, Superintendent Roger León said lowering the district’s chronic absenteeism rate, which reached 35% last fall, is one of his top priorities this school year. He visited two schools with new principals Tuesday morning: Avon Avenue and Nelson Mandela elementary schools.
As the temperature began to hit 90 degrees while León stood in front of Nelson Mandela Elementary greeting families, the heat was top of mind for the first day. There were no immediate plans for early dismissals or changes to schedules, he said, adding that families will be notified if that changes.
This is León’s fifth school year as superintendent, halfway through his contract, and the third year of his 10-year strategic plan to improve the district. León was hired in 2018 by the city’s Board of Education when the district regained local control after 23 years under the state’s purview.
This year, León said the district continues to fill vacancies and hire new educators, especially those able to work with the growing number of students with disabilities and English language learners. The district allocated funds for an additional 211 instructional positions this school year, according to a district committee report.
During a board meeting in late August, board member Josephine Garcia reported there were 118 instructional vacancies, 10 fewer vacancies than last year at that time. León said in June that the district’s vacancies “have been the lowest in years.”
Outside schools, crossing guards held stop signs as students rushed their way across busy streets. At the start of last school year, the city’s police department reported it was at 72% of its budgetary allocation for school crossing guard with an additional 27 in the hiring process.
Last week, Newark Police Lt. Tremayne Phillips reported 82 vacancies in the department’s crossing guard force during its biweekly call with the Newark Community Street Team, a nonprofit that recruits volunteers to patrol school routes.
Ahead of this school year, the district announced the appointment of 10 new principals at elementary and high schools. Eight of the new principals are at elementary schools and two will work at high schools. Some are first-time principals, while others are veteran educators and established administrators in the district.
Ryan Silver is the new principal at Nelson Mandela Elementary, located at the former University Heights Charter School location. The school welcomed its first set of pre-K-3 grade students on Tuesday and will increase enrollment by one grade level each year until the eighth grade.
Outside of the building, first grader Noah stood at the front of the line sporting a red hat, red sneakers, and a red backpack to match. Like the other kids in line behind him, he also wore the school’s gray polo with its stitched-on elephant insignia. And, much to the delight of administrators who stopped to help parents neaten up uniforms, Noah’s shirt was already tucked in.
“It’s always exciting when your child actually wants to go to school,” said Dishon Ross, mom to Noah. “I think a fresh start is always good, too.”
Other parents also noted the school’s clean slate as a draw to enroll their young children.
“We were excited about the idea of a brand new administration,” said Dante Cotton, whose 3- and 4-year-old daughters started pre-K and kindergarten today.
And for some parents, the school’s name — honoring former South African president and anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela — itself led them to enroll their child.
“Nelson Mandela was great, so I think this will be great,” said Nally Kadio as her daughter Jayna, 3, held onto her leg.
As students trickled through the doors, the sun rose over surrounding buildings, reminding families of the high temperatures to come — weather forecasts show a heat wave for the area this week. Luckily for these students, a brand-new school also means air-conditioned classrooms.
Just when the heat became noticeable, Silver, a Newark native and alumnus of the district, announced that it was time for families to say good-bye.
“Start giving those motivational hugs and kisses now!” he said.
As district and school leaders prepared to continue their work with students and their families this year, parents enjoyed the last moments with their students Tuesday morning.
Noah’s parents took a few last photos and called “I love you!” and “Be great!” before their son led the way through the doors — and into the new school year.
Catherine Carrera contributed reporting.
Jessie Gomez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Samantha Lauten is a fall reporting intern for Chalkbeat Newark covering public education in the city. Get in touch with Samantha at email@example.com or reach the bureau newsroom at firstname.lastname@example.org.