Sarah Turk (left) and Stephanie Geraldsen, eighth-graders at Gattis Junior High School, laugh with Principal Manuel Molina over lunch on their first day of school. Photo by Darrell Todd Maurina.
By Darrell Todd Maurina
Editor’s note: Monday was the first day of school for Clovis public school students. CNJ staff writer Darrell Todd Maurina spent most of it at Gattis Junior High.
It’s 7:45 a.m. Monday and hundreds of students are already milling around Gattis Junior High for their first day of classes under the watchful eye of Principal Manuel Molina.
Molina, in his ninth year as Gattis principal, said he’s used to student jitters on the first day of school.
One new seventh-grader was Molina’s own daughter, Macy. While Molina made sure to register his daughter early, many other parents didn’t register students early. Less than an hour before classes began, Molina said he still didn’t know how many students will walk through his doors.
“We have a lot of parents who for some reason will wait until the first day of school to register their students,” Molina said. “Sometimes they have just moved to this area, but more often that’s not the case.”
Some students and teachers had different first-day problems. One lock on a door wouldn’t open. Some Cannon Air Force Base students missed their bus. Still others don’t speak English, and Molina helped them find the bus for the district’s English as a second language classes.
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The doors opened as scheduled around 8:25, but by 8:40 there were still a dozen people in the office trying to register children and find their classrooms. Molina decided not to even try to make announcements during the first period, partly because some students were still hunting for the right rooms but mostly because the normal class schedule put many students in athletic practices for first period.
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Monday was Dennis Padilla’s first day as a Clovis teacher, though he taught for several years in Portales. His new students were nervous, but he was a bit nervous too during his first period.
“The past few months have been nerve-wracking,” Padilla said. “I went through all my books and materials, and my family helped me a lot to put together my room.”
Over the coming year, Padilla’s seventh-grade students will learn literacy and his eighth-graders will learn English.
“Kids all know how to play games and use the Internet, but they need to know how to get the words out of their brains and onto paper,” Padilla said.
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By 9:30 a.m., Molina received reports that some of the bells were not working — just one more item to add to a list of construction issues. Molina said workers were rushing over the weekend to finish everything in time for classes, but some things were not done in time.
After turning on the announcement system, Molina led students throughout the building in the Pledge of Allegiance. Later on, Molina found that some of the classrooms were missing flags and some of the speakers didn’t work.
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By 10 a.m., Molina was checking on his teachers. An entire hallway of doors was missing the doorknobs due to new construction, and Molina discovered that trash sitting in the hallways won’t be picked up until today. Not what Molina wanted, but he said it’s a relatively minor problem for a first day.
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It wasn’t the only problem. By 11:25 a.m., Molina found a cafeteria line backed up into the hallway, and learned that some students were issued incorrect account numbers for their hot lunches. Some students didn’t get to the front of the line before the end of lunch period, so Molina had to extend lunch break.
“Hey, you’re missing the boat!” Molina called out to a long line waiting for pizza, directing them instead to a salad bar with fruit and egg rolls.
Molina said a special nutrition committee has been formed to review all food served in the school and provide healthy alternatives to unhealthy food and beverages.
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After both A and B lunch periods ended, Molina got a few minutes to relax and explain why he chose to be the Gattis principal.
“I felt I wanted these kids to have a role model, a realistic outlook on something they could do themselves,” said Molina, whose own parents immigrated from Mexico and spoke no English.
“I really wanted to come here to be a positive influence for these students,” Molina said. “The environment a lot of these kids come from is challenging.”
Even though being a principal is always hard work, Molina said he enjoys his job — most of the time.
“We have maybe 50 kids out of 500 that take up 90 percent of our services, and maybe 10 kids out of those 50 really are difficult to work with,” Molina said. “A lot of them, it’s a wonder they make it to school at all.”
Molina will be coming back each day, he said, as long as he feels he can make a difference in his students’ lives.
“Often in these schools, our African American and Hispanic population cannot identify with the administrators and staff,” Molina said. “I want our staff to be people they can identify with.”