Schools throughout greater Hartford opened their doors to students Wednesday morning kicking off the 2017-2018 school year.
In Simsbury, 1,400 students returned to the high school. Walking through the hallways, occasionally pausing to greet students, Principal Andrew O'Brien acknowledged the uncertainty surrounding the state budget but said all faculty, staff and administrators remain committed to students.
"We can't let the budget difficulties interfere with the work we do. It's too important," O'Brien said. "They're our future. They deserve the same high school experience all the students before them had."
O'Brien stood at the school's bus entrance with other administrators, wishing students a great first day as they filed off their buses and into the school before the first bell at 7:32 a.m. In addition to their backpacks, many carried other items like instrument cases, sports equipment, textbooks and drawstring bags.
O'Brien said the 2017-18 year brings new initiatives to Simsbury High School, including a new STEM laboratory and a 15-kilowatt rooftop solar array that will not only offset some electricity costs, but provide educational opportunities to students.
"This is another opportunity to leverage technology to enhance learning for our students," O'Brien said. "We see this as something that will benefit science, technology, math classes, et cetera."
The town's clean energy task force started earning credits toward a solar array in 2008.
The array was completed with a $40,500 state grant and an additional $17,600 from the board of education. It is expected to generate 17,800 kilowatts of electricity annually, a value of over $2,600 per year.
O'Brien said the school is working with district officials to develop concrete plans as to how to incorporate the array into the curriculum. Burke LaClair, business manager for the district, said there is also an idea being floated to install a monitor where the public can view data from the array.
"This is the first school in the district to use solar and we hope to keep working with the town to find additional areas in our schools where it makes sense," LaClair said.
On the first day of school in Newington, students rode their bikes, skipped down the sidewalk or timidly stepped off the bus ready to start the new year at Anna Reynolds Elementary School.
As the students arrived, administrators and teachers greeted each child with a cheery "Good Morning" and the occasional hug.
Parents flocked to the school to meet their kindergarteners off the bus and give a final wave before students followed their teachers into the school.
"No tears yet," two parents joked as they parted their Kindergartners.
A few miles across town at John Wallace Middle School, students were ready to take on a new year with a new principal.
Following the retirement of longtime principal David Milardo, who retired at the end of the school year after 43 years as an educator, Principal Daniel Dias took the helm on July 1.
"Dias has devoted the time learning the culture that makes John Wallace Middle School such an outstanding school," Superintendent Bill Collins said when the news was announced.
Adding to the addition of a new principal, was the news that music teacher Brian Kelly had been named the district's teacher of the year just days before the opening bell.
Kelly is the Music Department Program Leader and teaches general music, band and orchestra.
In a statement released Monday, Collins said that Kelly is an advocate for all students and a strong believer in the power of public education.
"Mr. Kelly is an exemplary teacher. He serves as a role model to students and colleagues, consistently demonstrating the characteristics that he fosters in his students. He inspires every student every day to do their best," he said.
Kelly said he believed students want to be challenged.
"If you set high yet reasonable expectations for students, they will meet those expectations. Teachers must make connections with students. Sharing personal experiences and making connections with students through something relevant to them has proven to be an invaluable asset to my delivery of instruction," he said.
In West Hartford, Schools Superintendent Tom Moore said it was a "smooth" transition back for the roughly 10,000 students in the district Wednesday morning.
Wolcott Elementary School's 21 new students raised their hands Wednesday morning to show their classmates that they were among the new faces in their classrooms this year.
But they weren't the only ones who may have experienced some first-day nervous jitters.
Scott Dunn, Wolcott Elementary School's new principal, started his first day with his roughly 400 students on Wednesday morning.
"So if you're thinking, 'I'm a little nervous today' so too is your principal because I'm new and I'm meeting all of your for the first time," Dunn said to students, parents and teachers gathered outside the school.
Wolcott's students, as part of a first-day-of school tradition, stood in the backyard around a white gazebo and said the Pledge of Allegiance and sang "My Country, 'Tis Of Thee."
"School is really about a community because we have our family at home but we also have our family at school," Dunn said. "And when you look around to the people that are going to be in your class and the adults who are going to support you, we are, at Wolcott, a family and we are dedicated to you and your families and providing you not only a respectful and fun learning environment but a safe one as well."
Julia Dube, a 5-year-old kindergarten student at Wolcott, stood next to her older brother Benjamin, a 7-year-old second grader, and cousins Melinda Ford, 8, and Mattingly Ford, 10, for a first-day-of school photo at the Wolcott Elementary School sign.
Though it was a hectic morning with a sense of nervous excitement, Richard and Jessica Dube said their children were excited for the first day.
In his first year at Wolcott, Dunn, 46, said in an interview that he looks to "engage the school community in a unified, focused vision where we embrace all children and each other."
Dunn previously worked as the principal at A. Ward Spaulding Elementary School in Suffield from 2013 to June. He also worked as an assistant principal in Simsbury at Squadron Line Elementary School and Simsbury High School.
In a welcome letter to Wolcott families last month, he talked about "really working together to support all children to succeed academically, socially, emotionally and never leave any child behind and making sure that parents are truly equal partners in the process of educating our kids."
At East Hartford's Connecticut International Baccalaureate Academy, also known as CIBA, Wednesday was a day of firsts — the first day of Kathleen Simoneau's principalship, the first day of school for her 192 students, and the first time Isabella Piel, an exchange student from Germany, set foot in an American school.
Piel, who is from Dusseldorf, is among seven international students enrolled at CIBA for the 2017-18 school year.
"I was so nervous sitting in the car earlier," she said, but added that she's looking forward to taking a Chinese class, which wasn't offered at her school in Germany.
Piels is living with a host family, and her "sister," as she called her, also goes to CIBA.
Nils Babtist, a 16-year-old from Stockholm, Sweden, said he was "a bit nervous, but excited to get to know the school." His mother did a similar exchange decades ago with a high school in Maryland. "To see a country, a new culture — it's exciting," he said.
Xingyi Wu, who hails from Beijing, China, was pleased to learn that Yale is just an hour's drive from Hartford. She hopes to go to college in America, and has her sights set on Yale, UC San Diego or Cornell. She'll spend the year studying for the SAT and taking some challenging IB courses, she said.
For Simoneau, who served as CIBA's assistant principal before becoming principal this school year, students like Piels, Babtist and Wu can offer a global perspective on issues taught in CIBA's classrooms. It's as much a learning experience for local students as it is for the international ones, she said.
"[Local students] are able to learn things from different people's points of view, learn to be open-minded, and it can deepen their understanding of different issues that we're facing today," she said.
Despite a state budget quagmire that has starved some school districts of funds, East Hartford Public Schools have avoided layoffs and reducing class sizes, said Bryan Hall, chair of East Hartford's board of education. Still, vacancies left by retired teachers have gone unfilled, and after-school programs are in danger of being cut.
The district is preparing for a shortfall of $1.1 million after the Priority School District Grant and Extended School Hours Grant, which fund after-school programs and intervention tutoring, were eliminated, said superintendent Nathan Quesnel.
"Think about the community that we serve — we have a lot of working families, single mom families, that depend on these programs to make sure their kids are safe before and after school," said Hall. "That is on the cutting block if we don't get the funding."
The district will continue to offer the programs until funding runs out in the next 60 to 90 days, he said.
In Avon, more than 3,200 students were expected to walk through the school doors on Wednesday, as they, along with teachers and staff, returned for the opening day of classes.
Interim schools Superintendent JeanAnn Paddyfote said enrollment projections called for 3,250 students on the opening day. Paddyfote and other administrators were at the front door of Avon High School greeting students as they showed up for class. The high school was the first of the district's five schools to open on Wednesday.
"I expect a smooth opening," Paddyfote said as students walked in. "The rooms look great and everyone seems eager to start."
Paddyfote is leading the district while the board of education searches for a new superintendent to take the place of Gary Mala, who is leaving to become director of EASTCONN, the regional education resource center that serves towns in the northeast corner of the state.
Another new face in the district is high school Principal David Peling. He started at the high school during the summer and comes to Avon from East Granby, where he had been principal of East Granby High School since 2012. The high school was run by a succession of two interim principals during the school year before Peling was appointed and Susan Rietano Davey, a member of the school's parent-teacher organization, said she is glad to see a permanent leader at the school.
"Parents are optimistic that a new high school principal will bring stability to the high school, which thanks to the fabulous staff, has been operating remarkably well despite frequent administrative changes," Davey said.
She said the PTO worked with Peling and 60 returning students on an orientation session for incoming freshman that was held on Tuesday. That event included a video done by seniors who graduated last spring called, "What I Wish I Had Known As A Freshman," tours of the high school and a performance at the end of the day.