TAMPA — Meaghan Pabon wiped her eyes as she hugged 5-year-old daughter Sasha one more time — “I’m so proud of you,” she whispered — before reluctantly leaving kindergarten at the Rampello Downtown Partnership School.
“It’s my first kid going to school,” Pabon explained, as husband, James, passed her a tissue. “She’s so excited. I’m having a hard time.”
Tuesday was the first day of school ever for Sasha — and the first day of the year for 190,814 students, up 3,997 from last year. After years of relatively flat enrollment or slight decreases, Hillsborough has seen three years of growth.
The district expects to reach 205,000 students this year at its 200-plus schools, including a new elementary school.
Five of six new charter schools scheduled to start classes Tuesday opened their doors. The sixth, Early Career Academy, has decided to delay opening until next school year.
Aside from some late school bus arrivals, everything ran pretty smoothly with no major mishaps, district spokeswoman Tanya Arja said. Some parents reported that their children were stuck at the magnet school transportation hub for more than an hour without air-conditioning.
At Rampello — a magnet school in downtown Tampa that serves about 750 students in kindergarten through eighth grade — the gates opened at 7:15 a.m. for parents and students to find their classrooms.
“We heard great reviews about this school, how safe it is,” Meaghan Pabon said.
Sasha was a little nervous getting ready Tuesday morning. She marveled at the hour she had to wake up.
“I was like, ‘It’s way to early — it’s still dark!” she said.
But by 7:45 a.m., Sasha was happily maneuvering a red crayon to color an apple on a piece of paper, meeting new friends and showing off her pink, light-up backpack featuring several Disney princesses. She is looking forward to learning new things this year, especially math.
To Sasha’s right sat new friend Gavin Snipes, 5, who declared he is “excited about homework.”
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For the first time this school year, students from kindergarten on up will be held to a new, tougher set of standards in language arts and math. The new Florida Standards are based on the Common Core State Standards, which aim to better prepare students for college and careers.
Most Hillsborough elementary school teachers have been using the standards in their classrooms for a couple of years now.
Students in each grade have their own set of goals to meet. Once they get to the third grade, they will take new online state tests called the Florida Standards Assessments.
“In kindergarten, there’s more guided instruction at first,” Rampello Principal Liz Uppercue said. “But they’re still comparing and contrasting multiple texts and doing things you can’t even imagine kindergartners could possibly do.”
Also new this year are the 20 armed security officers who will patrol some of the district’s 140-plus traditional elementary schools. Known as “community school officers,” they are district employees who do not have arrest powers like sworn law enforcement officers.
Each middle and high school, as well as 19 elementary schools, already has its own officer from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office or Tampa Police Department.
And at the new Thompson Elementary in Ruskin, more than 800 students showed up for classes Tuesday.
“Some were registering even this morning,” Arja said Tuesday. “It’s an exciting day there.”
Most school board members visited schools in the regions they represent. Candy Olson visited nine schools in south Hillsborough, including Gibsonton Elementary, Coleman Middle and Plant High.
“I’ve been doing this 20 years,” Olson said. “I’ve noticed the first day of school is so different today. It used to be, ‘I’m your teacher, here’s your book, put a cover on your book.’ Now, they’re already deeply involved in the work.”
Olson, who isn’t seeking re-election this year, is wrapping up her last year on the school board.
“The joy of everybody welcoming each other back — that, I’m going to miss,” she said.
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Back at Rampello, Principal Uppercue roamed the kindergarten wing, popping into classrooms to remind parents that class would be starting soon.
By 8:15 a.m., when the last few parents were ushered into the hallway for coffee and donuts, third-year kindergarten teacher Miranda Tourgee hadn’t seen any major meltdowns yet, from children or adults.
“They all seem really ready,” Tourgee said.
Tourgee planned to work with her students on how to be good listeners and have them write poems for their parents. Eventually, with college-readiness already in mind, the class will take part in science experiments and research projects.
Parent Phillip Saint stood outside the door to the kindergarten classroom next door, peeking in at his daughter, Kaylei.
“See you later, alligator,” he said.
Saint, who works downtown like many other Rampello parents, said he and his wife chose the school for Kaylei because of its emphasis on the arts.
“She’s happy, really happy,” he said. Still, he said, “as a parent, you’re always worried. I’m about to cry.”