"One Big Family" Kicks Off School Year

 

When her alarm rang around 7 a.m. Monday, Mary Jasmine Lopez pulled out a tiny pink hat with black lace, fastened it to her ponytail, and headed to the front door. She had a very important date with Annette Cox, the crossing guard at John C. Daniels School of International Communication, and didn’t want to be late. 

“Good morning!” Cox shouted as Lopez, her mom, and siblings approached on Congress Avenue. “Welcome back to school!” 

Lopez is a third grader at John C. Daniels, a bilingual magnet school located in New Haven’s Hill neighborhood. Monday morning, she, her brother Miguel Lopez and cousin Abraham Perez were just three of some 7,325 students to return to New Haven’s magnet schools for the first day of a new academic year.

This school year begins with the goals of cutting both dropout rates and the achievement gap in half, said NHPS Superintendent Reginald Mayo at a press conference outside the school Monday morning. Across the district, total enrollment in the city’s school system hovers around 21,635. The student body at John C. Daniels is approximately 580, going from kindergarten through eighth grade. This year, the school welcomes Daniel D. Bonet as its new principal, with NHPS veteran Nicholas Perrone serving as assistant principal. 

Recruited by NHPS from Puerto Rico, Bonet said that his priority will be fostering cross-cultural understanding among students and teachers, pushing the school to understand its place as a "global" institution in the city. As a step in that direction, the school has added Mandarin to its middle school curriculum, where Spanish and English are already taught side-by-side.

“We are working hard as a team to develop our students and to develop our schools to unify cultures and to have the next future of New Haven,” he said at a press conference held at the school around 8:35 a.m., just before a mass of yellow school buses made their way into the parking lot. “This is the greatest compromise — to help our communities, to help all the students growing up, to give them a chance ... to be what we want for citizens for this state and this country.”

As students trickled in, those words were just beginning to catch on. In her fifth year as crossing guard at the intersection of Congress Avenue and Hallock Street, Cox said she’s never seen students so disappointed to return to school — but is holding out hope for Bonet's remarks. By 8:30, she’d only seen a fraction of the faces she’d expected to, and they were looking a bit glum.  

“They’re not smiling this year,” she said as she waited for students and families on foot and bike. “By this time last year, all the buses had arrived. Students had arrived, and they were excited.”

But then Mary Lopez came bounding across the street, holding bags of popcorn and orange juice to get her through the day. She waited for Abraham Perez to give Cox a hug before waving wildly, the bag of popcorn bouncing up and down in her small, closed hand. Cox helped her make it to the other side of the street, where her pink hat caught the sunlight and glowed for just a moment. 

“I’m so excited,” she said, adjusting the hat. “Nervous, because I don’t know who my teacher is yet. But excited.” 

“I’m excited about writing,” Miguel Lopez chimed in. He said he’d spent the summer catching up on his favorite series, Captain Underpants. Now he is “hoping to improve writing, cause I need it for everything and I’ll feel better when I’m better at it.” 

As Lopez made her way into the school to find her teacher and settle into a new classroom, Mayor Toni Harp took the podium outside, and urged educators and school administrators to double down for their students as the state faces a tough budget year.

Even if state budget has not been determined by the end of September, Harp said that New Haven will get an educational cost-sharing grant. But “we’re really calling upon the legislature to work with the governor to make sure that a budget is passed,” she added.    

“Through public education, we prepare those to whom we will entrust this community once they become adults,” she said. “All the work we do today really becomes theirs before long ... it’s our responsibility to make sure they are prepared to accept the controls.”

With those words, she, Bonet and Perrone, and several Board of Education members headed to the back of the school, where students were hopping off buses and streaming into the building before first period. As students walked to the door, the group erupted into cheers, applause and fist bumps to welcome the students back. Then they headed inside, to where an all-school assembly was planned in the school’s courtyard. 

“I’m trying to get all human beings to believe that we are one,” Bonet said as students marched into the courtyard drumbeats, cheering and hoisting grade-specific signs above their heads. With her pink hat fastened tightly to her head, Mary Lopez cheered and smiled from the front row. Bonet climbed onto the playground to address the crowd.  

“In the end,” he said after students had assembled, “We are one big family."