Record numbers highlight first day of school

Fifth grader Tony Moura, left, says hello to his Robert Caria

Students swarmed onto the Ascencion Solorsano Middle School
campus in record numbers on the first day of school but additional
facilities, careful planning and a staff dedicated to delivering

top quality education

kept the ballooning population in check.
Students swarmed onto the Ascencion Solorsano Middle School campus in record numbers on the first day of school but additional facilities, careful planning and a staff dedicated to delivering a “top quality education” kept the ballooning population in check.

This year, Solorsano is home to the second largest student body in the school district. With 1,200 students, the middle school surpasses Christopher High School in size, even though the high school is now open to as many grades as Solorsano. Despite its numbers, only a few stragglers weren’t in class first thing Wednesday morning after the bell marking the start of first period chimed.

“What makes us tick is our staff. It’s that team effort,” said Assistant Principal Maria Walker who, with seventh grade teacher Tricia Satterwhite, answered questions and directed students to class. “Yes, we have an increase in students but that’s not going to take away from getting these students a top quality education.”

The increase in student population isn’t unique to Solorsano. Enrollment throughout the Gilroy Unified School District is up about 150 students, said Superintendent Deborah Flores. Preliminary figures showed 11,141 students enrolled in the district, compared to just less than 11,000 last year. About 95 percent of students actually showed up for the first day, Flores estimated. Every student that didn’t arrive received a phone call from their school, inquiring into their absence. Vacation and illness claimed the time of the majority of students who didn’t show up, Flores said. Those students will continue to receive phone calls until they do show up, she added.

While other districts are closing schools due to dwindling numbers, Flores said she welcomed the influx of students, attributing the reputation of Gilroy schools, the affordable housing in town and anecdotal information that families are moving in together as reasons for the growth.

“I like to think it has to do with the quality of our schools,” she said. “I think families choose to live in a community where they think the school district is doing a good job.”

To accommodate its growth, the district opened a new wing of classrooms at Las Animas Elementary School, recently broke ground on the second phase of construction at Christopher High and will soon have additional restrooms in place at Solorsano. District staff are currently working on reviewing more than 40 architectural proposals for new construction at Rod Kelley and Rucker elementary schools and the Dr. T.J. Owens Gilroy Early College Academy.

With two new portables on campus, Solorsano students said they didn’t feel too crowded, but dismissal told a different story as a half-mile line of traffic jammed back to the corner of Santa Teresa Boulevard and Club Drive. The occasional horn blared but almost a dozen administrators kept traffic running relatively smoothly along the pick-up route, which has only one way in and out.

Instead of wasting gas, Solorsano parents and old buddies Lorenzo Nino and Bobby Reichert parked their trucks and used the half hour prior to dismissal to enjoy the sun and each others’ company.

“We just stay out here, avoid the traffic and it’s easier to get out,” said Nino, who perched on the tailgate of his truck and waved to other parents as they drove by. “Since we don’t really see each other, it gives us a chance to catch up.”

“We’re kind of like the old reliables,” Reichert said.

But even though traffic may get a little hairy at times, the fathers said they were pleased with the school.

“I have no problem with (the size) as long as they can manage it,” Reichert said.

With a little more than half as many students as Solorsano, lunchtime at South Valley Middle School had a much more mellow vibe. About 700 students call South Valley home and the school could comfortably accommodate about 100 more, said Principal Greg Kapaku. With his new assistant principal, Rodolfo Garcia, at his side, Kapaku mingled with his students at lunch, catching up with them after the summer.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which was signed into law by former President George Bush, families may transfer their children from a school that is not making federal growth targets – labeled a “Program Improvement” school – to one that has. Brownell and South Valley middle schools have not made federal growth targets in at least five years. Solorsano has – which is why Solorsano is almost the size of the other two middle schools combined.

But a sense of teamwork binds the three middle school principals, who see positive results on the horizon as a result of their collaboration.

“Sal, Greg and I spend about as much time with each other as we do with our wives,” Kapaku said of himself and the other principals.

In addition, the staffs at each of the middle schools will dedicate five days this year to teaming up and sharing ideas, Kapaku said.

District administrators estimated Brownell will add about 32 points and South Valley about 20 to their scores on the Academic Performance Index, the state’s measure of improvement on a 1,000-point scale. Those gains will put the schools within reach of 800 points, the statewide target score. Still, administrators at South Valley and Brownell are not certain that they will achieve the federal requirement that will propel them out of Program Improvement this year, which could mean more transfers to Solorsano.

Though he urges all students zoned for his school to give South Valley a chance, Kapaku named several advantages of his smaller student body.

“It’s easier to deliver that one-on-one intervention,” he said. “Lunchtime is very calm. You can get kids in and out easily. There’s a lot of room to move around. We never have lines at the bathrooms. I feel for Solorsano. Twelve hundred students is really tough. It starts to take it’s toll on the support staff.”

Garcia started Aug. 1 and said he was enjoying meeting his new students.

“I think the kids are really excited about coming back,” he said.

Another new face started her first day as principal of Glen View Elementary. Like Garcia, Corina Sapien spent the majority of her morning meeting new students and parents.

“I’m looking forward to getting settled,” she said with a smile, keeping an eye on a group of kindergartners who were getting a crash course in bathroom etiquette. “Learning the kids’ names is going to be a challenge but it’s one of my goals.”

By 10 a.m., Glen View was calm but the morning scene at several elementary schools were a cloud of kisses goodbye, introductions to new teachers and only a few tears.

Rod Kelley was hectic Wednesday morning, with some cars resorting to parking on curbs in a four-block radius of the school. Though traffic came from every direction, smiling kindergartners lugged backpacks twice their size on to campus, ready to start their first full-day of school.

Not five minutes away, parents at Antonio Del Buono held their 4- and 5-year-olds hands as they crossed a street jam-packed with cars unloading eager pupils. Most of the kindergarten parents seemed excited about the change from a half-day to a full-day program for convenience purposes as well as the prospect of a broader education.

“I think it’s a really good opportunity to learn,” said kindergarten parent Bianca Becerra. “Now the kids can get more involved at school.”

Regardless of a few traffic jams, Wednesday “was one of the smoothest first days of school I’ve had in my career,” said Superintendent Deborah Flores, who made the rounds at Christopher and Gilroy high schools, Solorsano and Eliot Elementary School.

“It was a great day for the district,” she said. “It couldn’t have gone better.”

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