The sun had barely risen, but Gillian Pons, donning pink shoes, a golden uniform top and a blue hair ribbon to match her shoe laces, was already feeling chipper about the morning ahead.
“It’s a great day!” said the 9-year-old as she walked with her family en route to Cypress Elementary, where the first day of fourth grade awaited.
For the Pons family, and some 600,000-plus students from Pre-K to 12th grade, Monday marked the beginning of the school year, an exciting and in some cases anxious occasion for families in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, home to two of the nation’s largest school districts. It also marked the beginning of a year of changes in education, including the implementation of new, tougher Common Core State Standards across all grade levels.
The new learning benchmarks aim to produce high school graduates who are better prepared for college and careers.
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But larger ambitions were in the distance Monday morning as students walked to schools with their parents, boarded school buses and headed to homeroom before the ringing of the final bell. For district administrators, the early morning focus was also on making sure operations ran smoothly, eating breakfast with school kids and touting new programs.
“Doing a little math teaching on the bus,” tweeted Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, as he rode with students en route to Hospitality and iTech academies before visiting a new MAST Academy at Florida International University’s Biscayne Bay campus. “Still remember my Calculus.”
As Carvalho made his way to FIU, hundreds of thousands of students in Miami-Dade settled into class and walked to school with their parents.
In Kendall, Miami-Dade homicide detective John Rusinque and wife Denise strolled toward Winston Park Elementary with their son Jonathan, 9, and daughter, Jordan, 5, tucked between them. The street teemed with cars and traffic crossing guards.
“You have to be prepared -- fail to prep, prep to fail,” Denise said, quoting a popular motto at the school.
For Jordan this was the first day of kindergarten. Her brother Jonathan is a veteran, now entering 4th grade. As they entered the school, principal Raquel Pelletier watched, with clipboard in hand, and assisted nervous newbies.
“The students are arriving happy, eager, and well-prepared,” she said.
Things weren’t quite so smooth at all schools in South Florida Monday.
Florida Intercultural Academy, a brand new K-8 charter school slated to open in Hollywood’s Hillcrest community despite protests from neighbors, was not ready for students to attend what should have been the first day at the new campus. The building, which could eventually house 850 students, was still under construction.
Instead, students were going on a field trip to their temporary location at Emerald Hills Country Club 2.5 miles away. They will be in the temporary location for the first week of school while building is being completed.
Some of the parents dropping kids off Monday were not fazed by the situation.
“I think it’s going to be great once it’s up and running,” said Teresa Grampa, who dropped her four children off. “The kids were really excited.”
Over at Olsen Middle in Dania Beach, issues sprung up even before school opened due to recurring issues with student schedules. More than 100 families paid a visit to the school Friday during an open house to try and correct problematic schedules, such as one that included two of the same math class but no first period.
It was too early Monday to say whether the scheduling meltdown that occurred on Friday would repeat itself. Students were told they would get their schedules during their first period class, so parents dropping off their children had no way to know right away if there were more scheduling glitches.
A few students, however, didn’t know where their first class was located, and they gathered in the cafeteria while administrators sorted it out.
For parent Tommy Villanueva, the immediate concern was simply encouraging his 6th-grade daughter Myalani on her first day of middle school.
“She’s starting a new journey,” Villanueva said. “I just told her just to be herself, and if anybody bothers her or whatever, come to me.”
“She’s ready,” Villanueva said. “It’s just the social thing, meeting all brand new friends.”
Despite some ruffled feathers at Olsen Middle, Broward’s first day of school in 2013 seemed far smoother than in 2012, when delayed bus pass mailings meant students didn’t know which bus to take, students who got on their bus arrived at school hours late because of delays, and some buses never came.
Superintendent Robert Runcie said in interviews ahead of Monday that the district was better prepared this year, and it seemed he was correct.
While thousands of buses rolled along South Florida’s streets, Gregory and Gillian Pons walked with their mother, Miriam, to Cypress Elementary at 5400 SW 112th Ct. Pons, a second-year PTA president at the 300-student Kendall neighborhood school taped blue, gold and silver balloons to columns on 112th Court along one of several red carpets placed at entrance ways.
Reality today, Pons said, is helping teachers by buying supplies for classrooms as cuts and effects of the economy linger.
“There are all these supplies we have to bring, and it’s getting harder, but we have to do whatever we can to help teachers implement for the start of the year,” Pons said, smiling, as she went about her task.
Pons said her family enjoyed “beach, pool and BBQ” on Sunday to tire her kids Gregory, 7, and Gillian, so they’d be up and ready early Monday.
“It’s the first day and everything is new,” said Gillian. “I have new teachers and there are teachers who have been here a long time.”
Son Gregory hadn’t quite that much energy yet. Six in the ‘morn wake up call isn’t easy, he nodded.
Miami Herald staff writers Carli Teproff and Brittny Valdes contributed to this report.