The start of a new era

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Former South Valley Middle School students and good friends from

Marking the end of an era and the beginning of a

new adventure

all at the same time, 682 freshmen and sophomores strolled under
Christopher High School’s monumental front archway, marveling at
the clean slate of their new school.
Marking the end of an era and the beginning of a “new adventure” all at the same time, 682 freshmen and sophomores strolled under Christopher High School’s monumental front archway, marveling at the clean slate of their new school.

“It’s like a high school on TV,” said Maria Ultreras, 15, pointing out some of her favorite touches – such as the second-floor breezeway connecting the classroom wings and elevators – on her way to physical education.

Some structures – like the gym, dining commons and library – still stand unfinished but the classroom buildings’ floors and wood-paneled walls gleamed with fresh polish.

“It’s gorgeous,” said Merrin Davidson, a parent volunteer whose son is a sophomore at CHS. “I haven’t seen people this excited since my kids started kindergarten. There’s this atmosphere on campus of anticipation – that the students are part of something. And the community is obviously behind the school. Everyone’s happy. It’s the start of a new adventure.”

Part of the adventure will be working to complete the campus in the coming weeks. Until the cafeteria is finished, students will dine in the quad during the first week, administrators said. Staff will serve the food, shipped in from Gilroy High School, from carts stationed outdoors.

On Thursday, workers scampered around campus, putting the finishing touches on the buildings still under construction. The low whine of electric tools could be heard above the students’ morning chatter.

Traffic flowed surprisingly smoothly for the first day of a new school, parents said. Three stoplights at the corners of the campus are installed but not functioning, and won’t be for about another couple weeks, police said. California Highway Patrol and Gilroy Police officers, along with a bevy of parent volunteers and enthusiastic administrators, directed traffic Thursday morning. Principal John Perales and Superintendent Deborah Flores were nervous that the pedestrian bridge linking the neighborhood south of CHS to the campus wouldn’t be finished on time, but the bridge was finished and about 200 students walked across it, trustees Fred Tovar and Javier Aguirre said. One parent even tried to drive across, they said – a mistake that will be made more obvious in the future with the installation of metal barriers.

After a night of broken sleep, Perales arrived on campus around 6 a.m., anticipating the first wave of students to step foot on campus.

“It’s historical,” he said.

Wearing running shoes with her dark suit and exchanging frequent but brief phone calls with administrators at other school sites, Flores took a quiet moment to step back and admire the culmination of the district and community’s work. Her gaze wandered from the “Welcome Cougars!” – chalked brightly on the front sidewalk – to the school’s vaulted entrance canopy.

“Wow,” she said under her breath. “They did a great job.”

Inside the classrooms, teachers jumped into the morning’s lessons even though some students were still clearly overcome with their new surroundings.

“I’m going to miss GHS,” said CHS history teacher and athletic director Darren Yafai. “But this is a new beginning.”

Yafai planned to get right to business with his class, a lecture on Tiananmen Square prepared and waiting for the students to arrive.

“We’re jumping right into the curriculum,” he said, standing in his classroom doorway, his Chico State college pennant hanging in the window above. Each CHS teacher’s classroom window is adorned with their pennant in just another effort to promote higher education, Perales said.

“You look great,” he said to a classroom of students during his morning round of walk-throughs.

“You look great,” several responded heartily.

This year marks a particularly significant spike in the district’s student population. The district enrolled 11,138 students, up 3.7 percent from last school year’s 10,732 students, administrators said. Some schools showed staggering numbers, including Ascencion Solorsano Middle School with 1,100 children and Gilroy High School with 2,100 students.

At Glen View Elementary, Principal Scott Otteson said there weren’t any surprises and that the kindergarten and first grade classes were actually “a little low.” The numbers will probably pick up more at the beginning of next week, he predicted. Starting school on a Thursday allows teachers to spend the first three days of the week on training and preparing for class. Thursday and today gave teachers time to assess their students and make the necessary placements into intervention or accelerated classes, he said.

“I think there were more parents crying than students this morning,” he joked at dismissal, as students ran up to him for a high-five or a hug. “They’re a little more worn out looking that they were at the beginning of the day.”

Blanca Ramirez was one of those parents who may have shed a few tears Thursday morning.

“It was an emotion roller coaster this morning – but for me,” she said, waiting for her daughter to emerge from her new classroom. “My daughter just took off. She was really looking forward to school starting.”

A newcomer to Gilroy from Monterey County, Ramirez enrolled her daughter, Sabrina, in the second grade at Glen View after hearing about the caliber of the local schools, she said. Her son, a freshman at Gilroy High School, wasn’t quite as enthusiastic as his younger sister about going back to school, however, Ramirez said.

About 1,950 GHS students picked up their schedules as of brunch, Principal Marco Sanchez said. Another 150 latecomers are enrolled, but had yet to arrive on campus. According to the California Department of Education, 2,633 students crowded on Gilroy High’s campus last year. Christopher’s opening put a dent in the overcrowding at GHS, but the addition of about 110 students from El Portal Leadership Academy – a charter school that closed over the summer – and an unspecified number of student from private schools partially countered the effect.

At 9:55 a.m., Sanchez made his way outside, anticipating the mid-morning brunch rush. Sure enough, GHS’s grassy quad flooded with students when the brunch bell tolled, giving the older campus a busier feel than the squeaky clean atmosphere at Christopher. Fewer students means fewer portables cluttering the campus. The district removed seven portables this year and Sanchez said he expects to have them all gone in the next couple years.

“Cell phones away,” Sanchez reminded a student staring intently at her phone as she made her way across campus. Being that it was brunch time, he quickly corrected himself – students may use their cells during brunch and lunch, but not in between periods.

“I’m still getting used to the routine here,” he said, working to fit an earpiece into his ear.

The novelty of a new principal encouraged many students to introduce themselves. Sophomore Alejandra Rueda marched up to Sanchez and extended her hand. The two exchanged his signature fist-bump and offered introductions.

“My first impressions are good,” Rueda said of her new principal. “But I need to get to know him better. Today’s going awesome so far.”

Other students and administrators praised Sanchez’s approachable and upbeat demeanor.

“Have you met the new principal?” one girl asked Sanchez, leaning her forearm on his shoulder.

“No, but I hear he’s a pretty good dresser,” Sanchez joked back.

As a group of students formed around him, Sanchez asked each for their name and repeated it back to help him remember.

“This is one of the most enjoyable first days I’ve had in a long time,” said GHS history teacher and basketball coach Jeremy Dirks, a couple strings of brightly colored beads looped around his neck. “The atmosphere is more relaxed but definitely in a good way.”

A group of about 40 juniors and seniors wearing purple shirts circulated through the crowd, doling out beads and words of encouragement to younger students as part of their duty as Link Crew.

“Some kids are still intimidated,” said Link Crew member Mark Foley, explaining that he and fellow crew members wore their shirts for a reason – so that new students would be able to identify them as a source of information. “We’re all really excited about this school year.”

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