'Excited. Nervous. Scared. Happy': New school year kicks off in Miami-Dade
Thursday marked the first day of school for hundreds of thousands of students across Miami-Dade County.
As a slate of new state laws and policies restrict how race, identity and history can be taught — and even what names students can go by at school — the superintendent of Florida's largest school district said that every student will be supported.
"We are prepared, like we've always been, to support and provide the guidance and support that any student may need. Regardless of who they are and regardless of their differences," said Miami-Dade County Schools Superintendent Jose Dotres.
At American High School in Hialeah, it was still dark outside as students streamed in before 7 a.m. on Thursday morning.
But they had a soundtrack as they walked through the gate on their first day of school, passing by a pounding drumline, a horn section and cheerleaders with pom poms.
Incoming freshman Adrian Emily said he was feeling a lot of emotions on his very first day of high school.
“Excited. Nervous. Scared. Happy,” Adrian said.
His first impression of the school?
“It’s big,” he said. “But I had family who came here before. So … [I'm] not that nervous.”
Inside, Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Jose Dotres walked the halls, shaking hands with receptionists, cafeteria workers, custodians and teachers.
“Good morning everybody!” Dotres said, greeting Brenda Graibe’s health science class.
“Is everybody happy to be back in school?” Dotres asked, drawing some nervous laughter.
“Let’s try that again,” he added. “Is everybody happy to be back in school? Oh, si! I got a ‘si’ over here!”
Graibe says the juniors and seniors in the school’s Academy of Biomedical Careers are on track to graduate with multiple certifications — including their Certified Nursing Assistants endorsement — as well as their high school diplomas.
“A lot of them end up with at least three certifications,” Graibe said.
After years of COVID disruptions, a hope for normalcy
Heading into the new school year, American High School Principal Stephen Papp says he’s looking forward to some normalcy.
“Last year was like the first real school year we had since the whole pandemic started. And this year I think it’s going to be even better,” Papp said. “The kids are more in tune to what’s going on in the building as far as academics, activities, athletics … the whole gambit that really makes a high school a high school.”
Unlike many schools across the state and across the country that are still scrambling to hire enough teachers, Papp says he’s just one position shy of fully staffed.
“I have one position open but I didn’t have any students attached to it. So it’s been good,” he said. “I’ve talked to some of my colleagues and they’ve got a few openings they need to take care of. But here at American, we’ve been blessed.”
According to Dotres, the district has fewer vacant teaching positions at the beginning of this school year than last school year.
“We do have some vacancies,” Dotres said. “And what we do is we cover them. Whether it is via a substitute, until we get them hired, and we have individuals at the school district that are fully certified teachers. And if there is a need, they will be deployed."
As of Thursday afternoon, there were about 200 teacher vacancies across MDCPS — primarily in the areas of special education, math and science. As of Aug. 10, there were nearly 7,000 teacher vacancies statewide, according to the Florida Education Association.
Surveys show that across the country, teachers’ job satisfaction is at an all-time low, with educators feeling overworked, underpaid and underappreciated.
Still, Dotres says MDCPS is hiring more teachers every day.
“Yesterday we hired 32 new teachers. Today, I believe the count is 26,” Dotres said. “And we continue to hire.”
MDCPS anticipates more “newcomer” students
As schools reopen in Miami-Dade, district officials say they’re anticipating more “newcomers” — immigrant students who are moving into the county from around the world.
Last school year, 20,000 new immigrant students enrolled in the district, mostly from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
After hosting English language intensive programs just for newcomers this past summer, Dotres says the district is rethinking how it supports students who are learning the language for the first time.
“It is those newcomers that have had no exposure to English, to this language, that we group them so that we intensify their instruction,” he said. “We’ve tried to group the students in some of their own knowledge base in their own proficiency levels and make sure that they are accelerated and supported. So we have a newcomers-differentiated program that will support these students.”
It’s not clear how many more newcomers might come to Miami-Dade. But Dotres says the district will be ready for them.
“We don’t know if we’re going to have the high numbers that we’ve had in the past two years,” Dotres said. “I keep saying it … if there is a school district that is used to immigrant students — I was one of them! Back when I came from Cuba — it is this school district.”