First day of school in Fresno: tears, fears, excitement

Michael Rodriguez Jr., clad in a red Angry Birds T-shirt with several mini crayon boxes in hand, was quiet as his mom Andrea led him and his three older brothers up the sidewalk to Muir Elementary School.

But Michael Jr., 6, who started first grade Monday, already knows the ropes. Unlike years ago, kindergarten these days is nearly a full-day program.

"Considering what kindergarten used to be, it used to only be three hours and now it goes until 1 p.m.," Andrea Rodriguez said. "He's ready."

Andrea and her husband, Michael, joined dozens of parents early Monday morning who drove or walked their youngsters to the central Fresno elementary school.

More than 73,000 Fresno Unified students and another 40,000 at Clovis Unified schools headed back to class Monday. Students in a half-dozen other Fresno County school districts also returned to class on Monday. Central Unified students returned to class last week, and other districts in the central San Joaquin Valley have either already started or will resume classes later this week.

At Muir, parents squeezed to find space in front of the administration building's bulletin board plastered with class lists.

Lucia Hernandez searched the lists to find her son Jaden Madrigal's name.

Jaden, 5, dressed up in a collared shirt and sporting a SpongeBob SquarePants backpack almost bigger than he is, was timid.

"We just tried to get him excited about it, but it's hard because he didn't want to come," she said.

It was an emotional morning for many, including Lisa Bettencourt, who sent her son Chad, 5, off to Jefferson Elementary School in Clovis.

Bettencourt and several other parents stayed for the school's annual bell-ringing ceremony, a tradition dating back to the 1880's. But both mother and son got teary as Chad joined the first-grade group's single-file line.

"His brother is not here anymore, he's moved on to junior high," she said. "He's just nervous."

Here's a look at other scenes as the first day of school, 2013, rolled out in Fresno and Clovis:

First bell

Armed with a walkie-talkie, Amy Hardcastle shepherded kids toward the cafeteria. It's the meeting place before Muir Elementary School's annual welcoming event out on the blacktop.

Hardcastle, a school counselor, buzzed around the central part of campus calling out "hellos" to sleepy teachers and kids alike as they filtered in carrying knapsacks stuffed with new school supplies.

"Are you awake?" she yelled across the green space to a yawning teacher dragging a cart of books and supplies up the lawn.

"Welcome back John Paul, you look taller," she called to a boy in new bright red shoes who whipped past her to see his friends.

Over at Fresno High School, office assistant Gwynn Friesen had her own hustle and bustle to deal with. Friesen, who is going on her third year working at the school's front desk, juggled phone calls, parents' questions and crying teens looking for their first-period classroom.

Ten minutes before the first bell rang, one parent showed up asking how to register her son for classes.

"It's always hectic regardless of which school you're at," Friesen said.

Class time

Back at Jefferson, Stephanie Lewis started her kindergarten class using an iPad to show students photos of the school's jungle gym -- where they'll go later in the day for recess.

Then she jumped into the day's lesson plan: learning about the color red. To the tune of "Frère Jacques," she led her kindergartners in song about the color many of them already knew lots about.

"What do you think these are?" Lewis asked, pointing to a picture book about the color of the day. "Cherries? Thumbs up if you've ever eaten a cherry before."

Sitting in rows on a square carpet covered in images of cars and trucks, the students raised their thumbs like antennas.

Cameron Hopper, 5, was confident about the next question.

"What do you think that's called?" Lewis questioned.

"A fire truck!" Hopper exclaimed.


Fresno High junior Kissel Martinez, 16, and her two friends sat outside the cafeteria in the heat.

Coming back to school means a few things for the trio: the end of summer, no more relaxing in front of the TV and a new set of classroom and administration buildings on the east side of campus.

"It feels like a different school," said Leslie Cubias, 16.

Fresno High got an upgrade this summer as decades-old "bunker" buildings were taken down to make room for an expansive green space that's yet to be completed. Two new buildings finished this summer -- that house a library, classrooms and offices -- bookend the space that's in front of the historic Royce Hall.

Fernando Navarro, 16 and a senior, said he has mixed feelings about coming back for his last year at the central Fresno school.

"This year, I think it's going to go by fast," he said. "I'm hoping to go to Fresno State ... it's going to be a big year of decisions."