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Traversing the city to cover the (newly sunny) first day of school

Every year, the city’s schools chancellor takes a five-borough tour on the first day of school. Today is Dennis Walcott’s first time on the circuit, but it’s our third, and we’ll be chronicling his journey and the first day of school for the city’s 1.1 million students in 1,600 schools.

Rachel, Geoff, and Jessica will be sending dispatches from around the city all day. (Remember, the reports are posted in reverse chronological order, so if you want to read from the beginning of the day, start at the end and scroll up.)

Want to add your own first-day-of-school stories or pictures? Email us.

5:32 p.m. It’s been a long day, and just like some teachers, we’re ready for a nap. (But don’t worry, we’ll post Remainders before we crash.) I’ll conclude with a note from the only school visit I managed today, a jaunt down Brooklyn’s Court Street to the low-slung building that houses two secondary schools.

One of them, the School for International Studies, made the news last week when the Post reported it was looking for a public relations professional to help improve its image and boost enrollment. Having more students would give the school more money and allow it to offer more to its students. But a student I met today cited the school’s small size as its greatest asset.

“I like that it’s small,” said the student, a 10th-grader who was scarfing down a lunch with friends while standing on the school’s front patio. “I want to keep it just the way it is.”

5:01 p.m. It was the beginning of the end for Christopher Columbus High School today, where students returned to class knowing that they would be among the last to ever attend the school.

Columbus is one of 22 schools the city started to close this year. It will phase out one grade at a time and close its doors for the last time when current sophomores graduate in 2014.

“Everybody is very upset. It’s depressing,” said a longtime special education teacher at the school, who said her department lost four teachers because the school does not have a ninth grade this year. “But we’re going to work just as hard, if not harder, to show that were a good school.”

That was the tone teachers were striking over the summer, when they told GothamSchools that they would revamp the curriculum despite knowing that the school’s days might well be numbered.

Two members of the sophomore class, Christopher Rivera and Lisa Budhwa, told Geoff today that they agreed the school should be closed. Rivera said one of his teachers told students they should feel special to be among Columbus’s final students.

“There’s just so many kids who don’t act the way they should,” Rivera said. “They’re always jumping around the hallway like they’re crazy.”

Kayla Allen, a senior, disagreed, arguing that the school should stay open. But she seconded Rivera’s complaints about student behavior.

“It’s not the school that’s doing bad,” Allen said. “It’s the students in the school not doing stuff.”

4:19 p.m. Earlier today, Geoff filed an in-depth report about City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s sharp words about teacher layoffs this morning at P.S./I.S. 187.

Other elected officials also turned out for the first day of school. As we noted earlier, Comptroller John Liu joined UFT President Michael Mulgrew at P.S. 257 in Brooklyn this morning.

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio was at Fort Greene’s P.S. 67 before school to kick off a drive to get parents to sign a “Count on Me” pledge of involvement. The Public Advocate’s office is also launching a drive to collect backpacks and school supplies for the city’s homeless students — whose numbers have quadrupled in the last three years.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. joined Walcott for his visit to Bronx Academy of Letters, then met with parents outside who were protesting the city’s PCB cleanup efforts.

And Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz sat in on Walcott’s visit to P.S. 295 in Park Slope, saying, “Hello, future!” as he entered a first-grade classroom. Markowitz sketched out a comparison of Walcott and his predecessor, Joel Klein, to Rachel.

“They’re two different personalities,” he said. “One was more of a triple-A personality, like me. Walcott is more B. He’s patient, he takes his time. I can tell he genuinely cares.”

3:40 p.m. Down the block from P.S. 9 at the Brandeis building, which currently houses six schools, dismissal was a more chaotic affair. Along West 84th Street, a trio of police officers guarded each door and corner, about 20 in total, Jessica reports. A woman walking by with her dog asked, “Do we have an army for this school now?”

Inside the building, the day had gone smoothly, students from the Urban Assembly School for Green Careers said. “All of the teachers welcomed us with open arms,” one freshman said. Another said that he was impressed by the way the teachers were helping students acclimate to high school. “On Monday we’ll start learning, I guess,” he said.

Nearby, at a small city park at Amsterdam Avenue and 84th Street, students who had gone to middle school together gathered to compare notes on their first day at different high schools. Two juniors from the Facing History School, housed in the Martin Luther King campus, said they had a “pretty nice” first day, filled with classes conducting activities to introduce students to each other and their teachers. The high point of the day, they said, was the fight in the cafeteria.

“We were cheering pretty hard,” one of the students said.

3:29 p.m. School bells are ringing — at least figuratively — across the city as the first day of school comes to a close. On the Upper West Side, Rachel Ward’s son might have been the one to start first grade at P.S. 9 today, but she’s the one with the homework — lots of forms to fill out.

Although her son Harry was glowing and listing off all of the fun things he did today — math, morning meeting, snack, lunch, recess — Ward called the day “traumatic.” She said, “I was just worried: new friends, new class. But now I’m just relieved and happy.” The two are off to get some ice cream.

2:41 p.m. Rachel is finally on the ground in Staten Island, where Chancellor Walcott is visiting Susan E. Wagner High School, whose 3,200 students are divided into several “small learning communities.” In a classroom designed to resemble a courtroom, social studies teacher Patricia Morganstern advised students in the selective Institute for Law and Politics about school rules. Walcott also stops by a class in the school’s hospitality and tourism division and drops in on a student government meeting.

Senior Debora Kim, a student government member, told Walcott about the school’s extensive extracurricular offerings, including community service, mock trial, and photography, that keep many students on campus until 6 p.m. She also said that students at Wagner are motivated to study foreign languages by school-funded trips to Europe and Canada.

Kim and her fellow student government members were prepared for Walcott’s visit: They sang “Happy Birthday” —the chancellor turned 60 yesterday — and presented him with a Carvel-brand “Fudgie the Whale” cake.

The chancellor thanked them for the cake but turned it down. The two-time skydiver and soon-to-be marathon runner said, “I don’t eat sweets, so I will leave this here for you to distribute to folks who do.”

2:28 p.m. In Harlem, Jessica met Jason Williams and his mother Lavern Palmer leaving the Harlem Children’s Zone’s Promise Academy Charter School. Decked out in gray slacks, a button-down shirt, tie, and cardigan, Jason had just finished his third day of school and his mother is already calling him a “success story.” She said that after Jason misbehaved last year, the school’s principal sat him down to talk about his goals: to go to medical school and also play professional football. “She told me she could offer me these things if I could change,” Jason said.

Palmer added, “He has an opportunity, but she made it clear that without an education he can’t move forward.”

2:15 p.m. UFT President Michael Mulgrew isn’t visiting schools this afternoon, but that doesn’t mean he’s not busy. The union is holding an event commemorating 9/11 this evening, and Mulgrew’s predecessor (and current AFT president) Randi Weingarten will be on hand. She was the union president on Sept. 11, 2001, and she’ll be joined by the chancellor at the time, Harold Levy. The event will also showcase art by elementary school students and video interviews with teachers and students who saw the attacks take place, according to the union’s press advisory.

Mulgrew told me earlier this week that the event has been in the works for nearly a year and that the 10th anniversary of 9/11 is absolutely permeating the first week of school for many teachers. “Anyone who was in a school that day remembers that day … especially teachers who were downtown who had to figure out how to get their kids out of their schools,” he said. “There were no directions or anything that day.”

2:02 p.m. In Harlem, Jessica just met another student who didn’t start school today. Maria Lopez’s daughter, a third-grader at P.S. 129 in Harlem, got all dressed for her first day of school in a crisp white shirt, slacks, and a pink backpack. But at the last minute Lopez decided not to send her daughter, explaining that she had errands to run and today’s pick-up time was inconvenient. “They really don’t do anything the first two days anyway so she’ll start a full week next week,” Lopez said.

1:43 p.m. Leaving Brooklyn for Staten Island and his last school visit of the day, Chancellor Walcott again encounters protesters angry about the city’s response to toxic chemicals discovered in school buildings. One mother shouted at Walcott as he got into a city car, “My daughter has asthma. How do I know she didn’t get it from the school?” She added that she kept her daughter home from school because of the PCBs found in many schools’ aging light fixtures.

Walcott remained even-tempered and called back, “She should be in school,” before driving away.

1:19 p.m. Now P.S. 295 students are giving Walcott a tour of the school’s vegetable garden, where they are growing broccoli, basil, berries, and corn. Vegetables from the garden are sometimes served in the school’s cafeteria as part of the city’s Garden to School Cafe Pilot Project. Slow Food USA funded the garden and a kitchen in the school building.

This is the first year that the garden is at its fully capacity, according to Susan Weseem, the school’s librarian, who runs this garden and three more off site.

“All the kids had their hands in the dirt,” she said. “The next challenge is to get kids in the summer during the peak growing time.”

1:09 p.m. Prepared with a poster that asks “What kind of reader is Chancellor Walcott?” a class of third-graders at P.S. 295 begins questioning the chancellor about his favorite books. Now? Biographies. And thrillers by Robert Ludlum, he says. Back when he was in elementary school in Queens: Hardy Boys novels.

Student Jayden De la Cruz asked, “Why do you like to read?” Walcott’s answer: “To learn something new, and sometimes to escape reality.”

1:01 p.m. The city’s press van has just arrived at P.S. 295 in Park Slope, the Studio School of Arts and Culture. Chancellor Dennis Walcott arrived a few minutes before Rachel and the other reporters, so they find him in a first-grade classroom. P.S. 295 smells of a fresh paint job, but it lacks air conditioning, Rachel notes.

12:53 p.m. About that improved weather: I’ve finally updated the headline to reflect the surprisingly good weather for the first day of school.

The good weather isn’t just a boon for recess at P.S. 3 — it’s also likely to be give a boost to the city’s first-day school attendance. Generally, attendance citywide dips slightly when the weather is bad. But even if the rain kept some students home, attendance today is likely to be far higher than on the first day of school last year, when the Jewish holiday schedule forced a solo first day of school before a long weekend and only 77 percent of students showed up.

12:45 p.m. Geoff just stopped by P.S. 3, the Manhattan school that, like many, narrowly averted disastrous budget cuts this year by winning an appeal with the Department of Education.

Today, the school’s biggest problem was this morning’s torrential rain, which forced students inside for their play periods. The school’s makeshift gym is a converted lobby with big steel columns that disrupt the open space.

“It’s cruel that they have to be inside on the first day,” said Principal Lisa Siegman.

Now that the weather has improved, the children will be able to go outside for the last two recess periods, Siegman said.

12:22 p.m. Two other stories from parents Jessica met at the enrollment center illustrate the issues families face when trying to navigate the school system.

A mother who lives in public housing said she call 311, the Department of Education, and her neighborhood school to find out what she needed to do to register her son. She said she was told to supply proof of residence, so she got a letter from her housing complex. But the enrollment office sent her away today, saying she needs two proofs of residence, not just one. But she doesn’t have a utility bill or a phone in her name, so she isn’t sure what to supply. Now she has to take another day off of work — and her son has to miss a second day of school — to figure out what to show as proof.

Another mother was trying to get her daughter out of her assigned high school. At its orientation, the school had wowed mother and daughter — but the orientation wasn’t held on site. When she visited the school’s actual building last week, she said men were doing drugs outside and she felt threatened. It’s too late to appeal a high school placement and safety transfers are available only to students who have been assaulted. The mother said to her daughter, “They can call ACS on me, you’re not going there tomorrow.”

11:59 a.m. Jessica stopped by the Joan of Arc Complex on 93rd Street, where the city is operating one of a dozen temporary centers for families who — sometimes frantic with worry — still need to register for school.

Lashawn Lowman arrived to enroll her daughter, Quinneisha Lowman, in eighth grade after moving from across town to West 134 Street. She said the process of finding a new school for Quinneisha had been “crazy.”

“I want a decent school for her, I know that,” Lashawn Lowman said. Before coming to Joan of Arc, she went to a registration center on 125th Street but learned it was only placing students with disabilities. Before that, she checked out neighborhood schools but came up empty-handed. “I went to the schools around me, but all the middle schools were closed because they were so bad,” she said.

Another mother, Channell Kimble, said she was pleased with her son’s placement in the sixth grade at P.S./M.S. 149. She said she had pulled him from a KIPP charter school after one year. Now he will attend the district school whose space-share with the first Harlem Success Academy has played prominently in the fight over charter school co-locations.

Kimble said her son didn’t mind missing the first day of school. “This morning he woke up and was like, ‘Oh, I’m tired,'” she said. “But now that he knows what school he’s going to, he’s anxious to get started.”

11:46 a.m. It’s almost lunchtime — and time for Chancellor Walcott and his intrepid followers to head down to Brooklyn. But first: a quick visit to P.S. 196’s music room, where the chancellor is joining students in an all-xylophone ensemble.

11:43 a.m. At P.S. 196 in Queens, art teacher Barbara Haar is leading third-graders in an activity that marries construction-paper cutouts and geometric shapes, and Chancellor Dennis Walcott is trying his hand at the project.

Walcott passes off the blue and orange cutout he made to teacher Barbara Haar. Asked by reporters for his inspiration, he demurred, saying he was “not embarassing myself in front of you guys.”

Haar said the addition of the new art room in P.S. 196’s renovated wing will allow her to offer richer arts lessons. “Here we have access to supplies, we have light,” she said, gesturing to the wide corner windows. “If we want to do landscapes we can do that. I was in a one-lightbulb closet before.”

11:23 a.m. For some students, the first day of school never came to be. Ninth-grader Monife St. Louis, who moved to the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn three months ago from Trinidad and Tobago missed the first day because of a misunderstanding at the enrollment center where she registered last week.

When the enrollment center matched her up with Boys and Girls High School, located near her home, she thought she was set. But she still had to register with the school, which she discovered when she arrived there today. Geoff met her just after she had been turned away for the day.

“It was a little bit frustrating because it would have helped if I knew I needed to do this,” said Rachel St. Louis, Monife’s aunt and guardian. “But the guidance counselors and teachers are really caring and supportive, so we’re feeling better now.”

Monife first official day of school is tomorrow. She’ll be enrolling at one of the city’s weakest large high schools, where just one in five students enter on grade level. But Principal Bernard Gassaway has promised to make Boys and Girls “the school of choice” within three years.

11:14 a.m.Chancellor Walcott explains that he chose P.S. 196 for his Queens visit because the school has strong arts programming. Principal Susan Migliano is also touting the new science lab and music room, located in a freshly renovated wing of the building.

11:08 a.m. Now on the Upper West Side, Jessica ran into three students from the Manhattan School for Children who said they were on their way to grab some pizza after being dismissed early. “It was a normal day,” one said with a new eighth-grader’s practiced apathy. “It felt like last year.”

10:40 a.m. And now Rachel is off to Forest Hills, Queens, where Chancellor Walcott is due to visit P.S. 196, the Grand Central Parkway School.

P.S. 196 is one of Queens’ top schools, and it attracts educated families to the neighborhood, according to its Insideschools review. It’s also one of several schools that Walcott is visiting today that have a high proportion of white students and low proportion of students from poor families.

According to Department of Education statistics, P.S. 196 is 43 percent white, and only 23 percent of students are eligible for free lunch. The Spruce Street School, which draws students from lower Manhattan, is 63 percent white and 39 percent free lunch-eligible. Later, Walcott is scheduled to visit Wagner High School on Staten Island, where 51 percent of students are white and 41 percent are eligible for free lunch. He’ll also stop by the Studio School of Arts and Culture, P.S. 295, in Park Slope, where 28 percent of students are white and 51 percent are Hispanic; 69 percent of students there come from low-income families.

Bronx Academy of Letters, which the chancellor just left, has no white students. About a third of students are black and two thirds are Hispanic. Nearly 90 percent of them are eligible for free lunch.

Citywide, about 14 percent of students are white. Three-quarters of city students qualify for free lunch.

10:33 a.m. Principal Anna Hall said her main concern this year is the increase in special education students at Bronx Academy of Letters. She said 140 out of 585 students require special education services, an increase of more than 20 students over last year.

She said she wanted to keep all seven of her special education-certified teachers in the face of budget cuts, but those positions came at the cost of school supplies and teacher training. “We have no paper, and very little in the way of art supplies,” Hall said. “We also converted offices into classrooms.”

10:25 a.m. At the Bronx Academy of Letters, Chancellor Dennis Walcott’s second stop for the day, Elana Eisen-Markowitz runs through a refresher in geography and city names with her 11th-grade U.S. history students. She said she wrote her first week’s lesson plans before getting training yesterday about new Common Core standards. “The Common Core hasn’t affected 11th to 12th grade social studies that much,” she said.

Next the tour drops in on an Advanced Placement English class, where teacher Amy Matthusen is facilitating a discussion of the book “Into the Wild,” which the students, all juniors and seniors, were asked to read over the summer.

“What I saw in there is truly amazing,” said Walcott. “They read a book over the summer. The teacher hardly said anything, which is to me great teaching.”

9:35 a.m. Unfortunately, we can’t be absolutely everywhere, so we’re missing UFT President Michael Mulgrew’s second school visit of the day, at PS 257 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

PS 257’s principal, Brian Devale, is well-liked by parents and students and a staunch union defender. At a Community Education Council hearing for District 14 in March, Devale made an impassioned speech to then-Chancellor Cathie Black opposing changes to “last in, first out” seniority rules.

He also made news in 2009 for donating a kidney to his 13-year-old son.

9:22 a.m. Middle-schoolers looking for the brand-new Innovate Manhattan Charter School seemed to have a hard time finding it. The school is opening in the basement of Tweed Courthouse (in the space vacated by the Spruce Street School), and its entrance wasn’t marked this morning.

Unlike at the elementary schools earlier today, Jessica reports no hand-holding or tearful goodbyes, and most students are walking in alone. Tracy Seno, whose son Max is starting sixth grade, said she appreciated that the school was opening in the Department of Education’s headquarters. Even better, she said, the site is just a block from her home.

“It’s completely different from everything, it’s not traditional,” Seno said about the school, which is the first American outpost of a Swedish school management company. “They don’t sit you down and lecture you and then you have to spit it back on a test. Its project-based learning. They teach you for life.”

9:20 a.m. As Chancellor Walcott heads to the Bronx, UFT President Michael Mulgrew is on his way to a school in Brooklyn. In the past, the union head and chancellor used to make a joint appearance on the first day of school, but that tradition ended last year. Then-Chancellor Joel Klein said Mulgrew had turned down an invitation to appear together in favor of visiting a school the city was trying to close.

Why aren’t they together today? Mulgrew told me earlier this week that today’s separation wasn’t intentional. “We tried to get our schedules coordinated,” he said. “Dennis invited me, I invited him, we tried to work it out.” But by the time planning took place, each had committed to appear at schools that made a joint visit impossible, he said.

Last year, Mulgrew blamed the separation on logistics, too. But this week he said last year’s scheduling talks were charged with tensions that weren’t present this year.

9:10 a.m. Chancellor Walcott has left lower Manhattan and is heading to the Bronx. Before he left, he steered the conversation to new Common Core curriculum standards being rolled out this year citywide. Yesterday, teachers at every city school got training on the new standards, and today, Walcott said the goal was for teachers to go into more depth with their students.

“We’re making sure we concentrate in our subject areas in a more detailed fashion rather than hopping from subject to subject,” he said.

9:01 a.m. At PS/IS 187 in Washington Heights, parents say this morning’s rain did more than dampen the walk to school. It also cut into the PTA’s potential fundraising profits, they said.

“Usually the parents line up all along here,” said Susan Seitner, gesturing to an area outside of the school. A PTA member, Seitner was hawking coffee mugs and backpacks emblazoned with the school’s name. “But they didn’t this morning because of the rain.”

Instead parents packed the school’s main entrance under the partial protection of trees as a steady rainfall accelerated goodbyes between parents and their children.

Seitner estimated that she had taken in less than $100 in sales for the $20 backpacks and $10 mugs — far below what she had hoped to earn for the school.

8:50 a.m. At Spruce Street, Children have been walking in, wide-eyed at the sight of public officials and their retinue (and the gaggle of reporters, including Rachel), for about 20 minutes. Along with Chancellor Walcott and Mayor Bloomberg, principals union president Ernest Logan, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and State Sen. Daniel Squadron are at the school, offering handshakes to entering parents and children. It took a while to get everyone inside, because the school staggered admission by grade level.

Walcott is mingling with families inside the blue-tiled cafeteria designed by architect Frank Gehry. “We heard some good things about Nancy Harris, the principal,” said John Griffin, whose son Angus is starting first grade. Griffin, whose family moved to Lower Manhattan from Brooklyn this year in search of “better schools,” said he was particularly excited about Spruce Street’s focus on project-based learning.

Many families are still waiting outside, peering through the building’s glass walls.

8:32 a.m. Jessica is at P.S. 234 in Tribeca, where the school’s famous crowding is on full display: The schoolyard is crammed with parents and children waiting to enter the building.

Earlier this year, the city told dozens of families zoned for P.S. 234 that crowding meant their children would have to attend kindergarten at P.S. 130 in Chinatown instead. Parents were angry, but it seems that most of them wound up attending their zoned school after all.

“It pretty much got sorted out,” said Michelle Robinson, whose third son is starting kindergarten today and who had friends get into P.S. 234 from the wait list. “It was just a process and a matter of having an eye and a stomach for it.”

About her own son, Robinson said, “He’s just excited, totally excited, bursting with excitement that he finally gets to go to school where his brothers did.”

And she offered perspective for parents stressed out about kindergarten admissions: “This process is easy compared to high school — that is the interesting process.”

8:21 a.m. And now Mayor Bloomberg has arrived at the Frank Gehry-designed building that houses Spruce Street School, along with the architect himself. The mayor praises the building — Gehry’s first school project — and his own accomplishments, saying, “Parents think the schools are improving.” In fact, a New York Times poll this week found that New Yorkers are not happy with the mayor’s school policies.

The new building is part of the rebound of Lower Manhattan after 9/11, Bloomberg said, continuing the theme that has run through most of his public appearance in the week leading up to the 10th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks. Spruce Street is next to City Hall and just blocks from the World Trade Center site.

8:12 a.m. Peter Pena is one of the first parents to arrive at Spruce Street, with his son Damian, a kindergartener. School starts today at 8:30 a.m., and city officials ask the pair to wait outside. Fortunately, the rain has fully cleared and the sun is out.

8:06 a.m. Speaking in Washington Heights, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn says she is thankful that city officials were able to work out a deal to avoid teacher layoffs this summer. “We weren’t able to avoid all layoffs, unfortunately,” she said, referring to the 777 school workers set to lose their jobs by October.

Quinn told students to thank their parents for sending letters and attending rallies to oppose the layoffs. If you ever want anything, she told the students, just send a letter.

8:03 a.m. Chancellor Dennis Walcott has arrived at the Spruce Street School. As he entered the Frank Gehry-designed apartment building — the tallest residential building in the Western Hemisphere, according to the city — Walcott passed protestors chanting “PCBs have got to go.” Spruce Street was housed for two years inside the Department of Education’s headquarters at Tweed Courthouse before the 76-story Gehry tower was completed. Now it has four stories, a gleaming library, and decorative tiling.

7:50 a.m. Rachel has arrived at the Spruce Street School in Lower Manhattan, where Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Dennis Walcott are scheduled to start their school day. Beating her, and the officials, there: A handful of protestors urging the city to take faster action on clearing schools of PCBs. The dangerous chemical is present in many schools’ aging light fixtures.

As the rain clears, teachers are stowing their umbrellas in front of the school. Families haven’t started to arrive yet.

7:30 a.m. The first stop of the day goes to UFT President Michael Mulgrew, who is joining Robert Jackson, chair of the City Council’s education committee, and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn at PS/IS 187 in Washington Heights.

Mulgrew said the school was chosen because it’s a close-knit, community-centered school. Jackson’s three children attended the school, as did Cynthia Chory, its current principal.

The visit could be construed as political — Quinn is running for mayor and the union’s endorsement matters — but Mulgrew said he just came because Jackson and Quinn asked him to. “It’s a statement that we’re all concerned with schools in the budget environment,” he told Geoff, pointing out that his next scheduled visit, to PS 257 in Brooklyn, is with Comptroller John Liu. Liu is also weighing a 2013 mayoral run.

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