First Day of Schools : At Three Campuses, All Is New as the Kids’ Shoes and Lunch Boxes


It may have been the first day of class Tuesday at the new Huntington Seacliff Elementary School in Huntington Beach, but even the first-graders knew the law of the playground.

One minute all was happy chaos: Some students jumped rope; others played handball; and one little boy, his face hidden inside a large red rubber bucket, banged his head repeatedly into a cement post for no apparent reason.

But when the bell rang signifying the end of lunch, everything stopped. Then a teacher blew her whistle. Together, the students lined up and diligently followed their teachers back to class.


It was a scene replayed from La Habra to Huntington Beach as throngs of Orange County public-school children swapped their bathing suits for backpacks and returned to school. Classes resumed in 10 public school districts Tuesday, with more to come today and Thursday. In Huntington Beach, Tustin and Santa Ana, the biggest back-to-school buzz wasn’t who got which teacher or where to sit at lunch, but the glitz of new multimillion-dollar campuses.

At Huntington Seacliff, teacher Stephanie Holtz was getting acquainted with her new kindergarten-first grade combination class. Playing a guessing game in which the students tried to determine what was inside a big cardboard box at the front of the room, Holtz learned her children’s names and they learned that it’s best to raise your hand before speaking out.

Suddenly, though, there was drama. “My tooth feels like it’s going to bleed and come out,” a first-grader named Jacob announced.

Immediately, 16 little hands found their way into 16 little mouths to check for loose teeth of their own. Children peered deeply into each other’s mouths, compared notes on tooth fairy visits and then returned their attention to the front of the room, where Holtz eventually revealed what she had hidden inside that box: a shiny black bear hand puppet.

Outside, the planter boxes are still just plots of dirt. The tetherball posts lack balls. And in the sky-lit library, which is devoid of furniture, books lay stacked on the floor. Yet fifth-grader Jessica Cao, 9, said the new school made her feel “grand.”

“It’s like you jump into a cleaner and a better world,” Jessica said, patiently waiting her turn at jump rope.

Ten-year-old Hunter Mason was also struck by the freshness of his school. “There are no popular kids here yet,” the fifth-grader said. “It’s all new.”

Indeed. As 465 students met their futures in the new, 23-classroom school, teachers and students checked out one another--and their new digs.

The same was true at Tustin’s new $28-million Pioneer Middle School and at Santa Ana’s new $13-million Jim Thorpe Elementary, both of which also opened Tuesday. On the outside, the two schools resembled construction sites more than campuses. But inside, classes were proceeding apace.

Pioneer, which welcomed 327 students on opening day, is Tustin’s first new middle school in more than 25 years.

Not only do Pioneer’s exposed-beam classrooms feature air-conditioning and commanding views of the hills surrounding the Tustin Ranch neighborhood, they also will have Internet access soon. The school will have an in-house broadcasting system, allowing kids to produce Pioneer news shows or air science experiments for all their peers.

And, oh, those new bathrooms.

“They’re really nice,” said eighth-grader Justin Kipapa. “They have mirrors, no writing anywhere. They don’t smell, and the faucets turn off by themselves.”

Of course, Pioneer fielded its share of first-day glitches. Because cafeteria workers were unsure how many students would order lunch, a slight pizza shortage ensued. One boy wandered into the office seeking a chair. Others needed to straighten out their schedules. It was hard to hear Miss Ko read roll for sixth-period math over the din of drills.

For the time being, the school lacks basketball courts and green for soccer matches.

“One would like a little grass,” said Principal Adele Casso Heuer, her otherwise crisp navy suit flecked with construction dirt. “But it takes a little time. We just moved in last week. The teachers and staff worked on Saturday and Sunday to set everything up.”

Teachers, administrators and construction workers all toiled overtime in Santa Ana as well to have Thorpe Elementary, a fundamental school, ready for more than 700 kids.

Challenge No. 1 was the parking.

For now, the playground serves as the parking lot. In turn, the blacktop poses as the playground. And nothing pretends to be the sidewalks. Yet.

But soon, sidewalks, parking spaces, Internet-capable computers, even a library fish tank will arrive. It should all be done by early October, said Principal Betty Wagner, displaying why unflagging optimism is a key job requirement for school principals.

“We made it! We made it!” Wagner fairly sang at day’s end. “Furniture is coming a little bit at a time, and we’re excited about that. Teachers’ desks are here. Students are using temporary [borrowed] desks. And, look, look at this,” she said, hopping from her chair to the window, “I have blinds.”

And for the first day of school, new blinds and functional classrooms were enough.