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A Day of Whine and Woes-es : School Is Scary for Head Starters, but Not for Long

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Feet planted firmly on the ground and arms wrapped tightly around his father’s leg, 4-year-old Brandon Jeffers eyed his first classroom as if it were the unhappiest place on earth.

Despite gentle tugging and whispered encouragement from his parents, Brandon had one response to his first day of school Tuesday: “Auuugh!”

“Come on Brandon, look at all these toys,” his dad, John Jeffers, pleaded.

“Auuugh!” Brandon replied.

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“Come on Brandon, look at all these new friends,” his mom, Renee Ortiz, said.

“Auuugh!”

Head Start teacher Susie Brown rescued the harried parents from their son and led the wailing preschooler straight to Petey the parakeet. The tears soon stopped, and Brandon’s parents tiptoed out of the classroom.

Similar scenes were played throughout the four Orange County school districts--Buena Park, Fullerton, Fullerton Joint Union High and La Habra City--that opened for business Tuesday.

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From wide-eyed preschoolers to seasoned high school seniors, the day was a farewell to summer and a hello to friends and teachers old and new, to classroom assignments and, worst of all, to homework. Later this week, most of the county’s unified school districts will open their doors, with the remaining schools getting started next Monday and Tuesday.

At Maple Community Center in Fullerton, anxious parents and weepy post-toddlers ventured into a federally funded Head Start program. The 4-year-olds feared the unknown, and many parents were also apprehensive about sending their little ones off for the better part of the day.

But the youngsters usually settle into their ABCs and crayons within minutes, said Principal Harriet Hermann. It’s the parents who continue to bite their fingernails.

“It’s scary for the parents to let go of their children. They want their child to do well.”

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Brandon’s parents said they got a case of the willies as soon as their son started crying.

“That just brought back all these memories of how I started school for the first time,” Jeffers said.

The situation was also somewhat raucous at Richman Elementary School a few blocks away, but the noise came not from teary toddlers but from hotshot sixth-graders sharing summertime adventures. Within minutes of the first bell, teachers were commanding them to settle down, and Principal Minard Duncan was off and running in his 35th year as an educator.

“The first day is always chaos,” Duncan said as he zoomed across the campus leading a child and pointing out registration rooms to parents. “By the time 5 o’clock rolls around, it will feel like the day flew by because there’s so much to do.”

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To sixth-grader Marlena Garciacano, 11, the new school year was a welcome change. She admitted that she was looking forward to the end of summer and the start of the school year. After all, sixth-graders are the oldest on campus and the younger children are small potatoes.

“I’m a big grader now,” Marlena said.

Less than a mile away, considerably bigger graders were back in full force. When the lunch bell rang at 12:50 p.m., more than 1,500 students shot out of classrooms at Fullerton High and staked out spots in the courtyard.

Cheerleaders were in fresh, tomato-colored outfits and the jocks had their jerseys carefully tucked into their shorts. Gone were last year’s neon fashions, replaced by Berkenstock sandals and similar accouterments in a reprise of the Mother Earth look.

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The high schoolers silently separated into their traditional campus spots. Freshmen huddled under a sprawling tree in the middle of the quad. Sophomores and juniors gathered by the walls--separately, of course. And seniors grabbed the best location on campus near Lemon Street, with a clear view of Fullerton College.

Bopping their way through the first day of their last year, seniors like Charles Johnson, 18, took a philosophical approach toward their last high school days.

“It feels kind of good to be back,” said Johnson, who plans to become a mechanic. “I just want to get it done and do what I want to do.”

Times correspondent Jon Nalick contributed to this report.

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