Gloria Torres had overlapping reasons for visiting Fillmore Elementary Tuesday morning, the first day of school in Oklahoma City Public Schools.
The south side elementary has nearly 1,000 students.
And two of them are Torres’ grandchildren.
Holding hands with their grandmother who brought them, both were somewhat cautious at first, but then warmed up once they sat down in the cafeteria with the rest of their classmates.
The other reason Torres visited is that she is the school board member for District 6 that includes the southwest corner of the district.
District 6 includes U.S. Grant High School, two feeder middle schools and 9 feeder elementary schools.
Free Press followed along throughout the morning as she visited Fillmore Elementary, U.S. Grant High School and Emerson-South alternative school, all in her district.
Fillmore principal Susan Martin Rachels told us that Tuesday was her 57th first day of school and the beginning of her 42nd year in OKCPS.
“I taught in a private school once for a minute or two, but the rest of my time has been in public schools,” said Rachels.
Out of the 42 years she has been an educator of some sort, the last 18 have been at Fillmore.
Her depth of leadership experience and accumulated influence over her teachers and students was revealed in the way the first day of school started there.
Students and parents arrived at the school with supplies in hand, some carrying heavy cases of paper to donate, the new financial reality of attending school in a state that is near the bottom of the U.S. in public school funding.
But they seemed happy to be there on the first day, moving from one place to another calmly and with a clear sense of how they were supposed to behave.
Rachels and one of the assistant principals, Sheila Zummer walked through the halls but happily had little to attend to since teachers and students were already at work in their classrooms.
Experience over the years had shown Rachels the many intricate steps it takes, starting with the end of school last year, to arrive at that moment of calm among students once the first class period of the first day started.
One example was when first-year art teacher Eja Bauer looked out on the hallway and was surprised to see her first class of sixth-graders calmly standing along the wall waiting for her to call them into class.
“Is this how you usually line up before class?” she asked. They nodded and said “yes.”
While there are a number of charter schools on the south side, Capitol Hill and U.S. Grant high schools are the big, neighborhood public high schools that do the heavy lifting at the 9-12 grade level there.
Torres and Eduardo Sindaco, instructional leadership director for secondary schools, caught up with Principal Greg Frederick.
He was in the hallways with several assistant principals helping students find their way to their new classes.
With close to 2,000 students enrolled each year, Frederick said it’s usual for Grant to have about 300 to 500 students with some sort of enrollment problem to solve on the first day. And that’s what we saw in the auditorium when we got there.
Students had to wait for all kinds of reasons, but that didn’t stall the staff or the flow of the student body.
The rest of what was going on in the building was calm and orderly with classes well underway even half-way into the morning.
Ivan D’Acunha, originally from Peru, has been teaching in OKCPS for 10 years. He started in the district at Jefferson middle school when Torres was the principal there.
Now he specializes in helping newcomers to the U.S. find their way into academics and extracurriculars at Grant.
“It’s a challenge for them language wise, but also academically,” said D’Acunha. “Sometimes they come from countries where the academic process is very different and they are confused here.”
He had a big smile on his face and was eager to start getting students into his classes once enrollment was complete.
English teacher Mandy Winningham was starting to orient her sophomore students to what they would be studying in their World Literature class.
“I’m really happy to get to teach this class,” said Winningham. “I love this!”
Frederick is proud of the Marine Junior ROTC classes at Grant. He said the program is so strong they “almost have to have a waiting list some years.”
Marine Lt. Col. Shane Russow (Ret.) was orienting one group of students in his ROTC class and getting a feel for what motivations students had for being in the elective class.
He is assisted by Marine Master Sgt. Howard Moore (Ret.).
“Why are you here?” he asked as he pointed to one member of the class.
“I was in here last year and I like the way you push us,” she said.
Again, we saw order, pride and discipline in faculty and students. As is so often the case, reality is far off from what some may say about the big, urban schools in OKCPS.
Frederick said that it’s sometimes a challenge to fit close to 2,000 into a building built for 1,300, but somehow they do it each year.
We then followed Torres further south to Emerson South, the newest alternative school in the district.
See our story about their preparations as school was about to begin.
Sheri Kishore, Director of Alternative Education for the district said they had 112 enrolled there on the first day.
Typically, alternative schools are slow to pick up transfers from the neighborhood schools because it takes time for principals to start referring students who need the programs.
But this year Dr. Terri Bell, Director of Student Support Services had principals start the referral process before the last day of school so that the student could attend orientation and not lose time at the beginning of the school year.
After months of preparation, Principal Brad Buxton was glad to see the first day come.
“I think we are going to have a great year,” he said.