Schools see few issues, smooth first day of classes Friday

Aaron E. Looney and Wade McIntyre
East Ascension High School junior varsity cheerleader Taylor Cochrane, right, and the school’s cheerleading squad give students at Pecan Grove Elementary School in Gonzales a sendoff as they board buses at the end of the first day of school Friday. Pecan Grove Primary School was one of two new primary schools, along with Prairieville Primary School in Hobart, to open in the parish this year. System Public Information Officer Johnnie Balfantz said Friday that 17,062 students had enrolled in parish public schools as of Friday, with more anticipated.

As students headed to school for the first day of classes in Ascension Parish public schools Friday, turbulent weather caused system officials to scramble in the early hours to fix power issues at some campuses.

Those problems were rectified by mid-morning, leaving students across the parish – including two new primary schools – ready to learn.

Schools opened to an estimated first-day enrollment of 17,062 students, system public information officer Johnnie Balfantz said Friday afternoon. He said the number was 150 students fewer than last year’s opening-day enrollment.

“That was just a first-day estimate,” Balfantz said. “We’re expecting a significant increase starting Monday.”

Last year, the system had a maximum enrollment of 18,807 students and ended its school year with 18,656 students, Balfantz said.

Recent large enrollment figures have forced the School Board to use temporary classrooms at almost all of its schools, and has its two newest schools opening at or near their desired capacity.

Director of Maintenance Jeff Parent said Friday that strong storms knocked out power to Donaldsonville High School, Dutchtown High School and Lowery Intermediate and Middle schools prior to the start of classes.

“Those storms were pretty bad,” Parent said. “A main transformer blew in Donaldsonville that knocked out power to a lot of bigger buildings along Hwy. 1, including our schools there.”

In the Dutchtown High case, Parent said, the school was without power for a short time in the early morning, but was quickly repaired.

The day also marked the opening of two new primary schools, Pecan Grove Primary School in Gonzales and Prairieville Primary School in Hobart. The schools were built with funds from a $69 million tax plan passed by parish voters in 2005 to help ease overcrowding. Three additional schools funded by the tax will open in the next two years, with another covered by dollars from the system’s fund balance to open as well.

At Pecan Grove Elementary School, Principal Margie Meyers described the first day of school as the “coolest cool on earth.”

Meyers said she walked the halls of the school and could feel the energy, excitement and motivation of her students.

“I stuck my head in every classroom and in every room, the children were working,” she said.

Naturally there were bugs to be ironed out on the first day. The school’s intercom was not up and running, so teachers rang an old fashioned school bell which added to the uniqueness and excitement of the day.

What was for lunch? “Hello, pizza,” Meyers said, laughing.

“I’ve had so many teachers stop me and say this is the best first day they have ever had and they were looking forward to the next day,” Meyers said.

At day’s end, the school, at the suggestion of Assistant Principal Candy Wikman, held a big send off with East Ascension High School cheerleaders and school officials, waving and cheering as the kids board buses.

“The idea was to send the kids off with a great big pep rally because this is historic day and we wanted to make it meaningful and something they would remember,” Meyers said.

At Prairieville Primary, a line of cars snaked down the driveway of the Parker Road campus

Friday morning to bring students to the new school, while buses docked in the school’s large bus lot to unload students for the first time.

“Everything’s going smoothly,” principal Carol Smith said as students filed down the school’s hallways en route to their classrooms. “There have been a few hiccups, but nothing serious.”

Smith said that a prep day held at the school Sunday helped many of the students know where their classrooms were prior to the start of classes Monday.

“About 80 to 90 percent of the students came for the prep day, so that gave them a preview of everything and makes today not as hectic or scary, especially for the younger kids,” Smith said.

The principal said that she has received “a lot of positive reactions” from both students and parents about the school.

“The kids love it,” she said. “They like the experience of a new place to explore, new people to meet. A lot of parents have told me they think the school is gorgeous and are happy their kids are coming here. It’s a new beginning not only for the students, but for us as well.”

While the school is open, construction crews are still working to finish minor projects on the campus. Weather issues and other construction problems forced delays in the building process and put crews finishing the majority of the campus just weeks prior to its opening.

However, Smith said that the work will not interfere with classes at the school.

“We worked very hard to have this school as ready as we could possibly have it before the start of classes,” Smith said. “A lot of teachers spent many hours here, especially this past week, to get their classrooms ready, We were hoping to be up and running earlier like Pecan Grove, but it’s OK,” Smith said. “We’re getting there. We’re ready to teach.”

Smith pointed out a bulletin board on the wall, titled “Prairieville Primary’s Helping Hands,” that displayed the names of parents, students and volunteers who helped prepare the school.

“It was definitely a team effort,” Smith said. “We have an outstanding faculty and staff here, along with school system officials, parents and volunteers. They believe in this school and want it to succeed.”

In other matters, Balfantz said there were also issues with some parish school buses Friday. These included a minor accident involving a bus on Hwy. 42 near Hwy. 44 in Galvez, one bus delivering students to the wrong school and some buses running behind schedule.

No one was injured in the Galvez crash, Balfantz said. He added that the incorrect delivery occurred because some students living on the border of the Prairieville Primary and Central Elementary school districts were confused as to their bus pickups.

“It’s a new school year, with new bus routes for a lot of drivers,” Balfantz said. “Things like this are expected in the first few days.”

Prairieville Primary School Assistant Principal Mikie Long helps students exit the first bus to arrive Friday at the new K-5 school, located on Parker Road in Hobart.