The 2022-2023 school year began for West Hartford Public Schools on Aug. 31, 2022.
By Ronni Newton
Across West Hartford there were smiles on the faces of students as they greeted their friends and teachers and smiles on the faces of parents as they looked forward to a school year that all hope will be much more “normal” than the past several years have been.
There were also hugs and high-fives.
Wednesday was the “first day of learning and their new stories,” Charter Oak International Academy Principal Georgina “Gina” Rivera said during a flagpole ceremony celebrating the start of the school year. She was named Charter Oak’s principal over the summer, replacing Juan Melián who is now the principal at Sedgwick Middle School.
Zeke Churchill began his second grade year at Charter Oak on Wednesday, and was eagerly anticipating being in Jill Hawkins’ class. His mom, Mollie Churchill, is also looking forward to what this year will bring.
Students now in second grade started kindergarten in the fall of 2020, beginning their elementary school education in either a hybrid or completely remote learning environment amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Keeping the youngest students engaged was a challenge for all involved, although those starting out didn’t really know anything different.
“This school does such an amazing job,” Churchill said.
She’s happy for the traditional start to the school year. “That it is in person is such a lifesaver,” she said.
While some students, parents, and staff were wearing masks, they are optional in most cases, and most pandemic restrictions have been phased out.
Lincoln Vincunas, also a second grader in Hawkins’ class was all smiles as she stood on the playground with her mom, Sarah. She said she was very happy to see her teacher.
Ava Kurth, who was standing with her dad, Darren, is in Dawn Hyland’s first grade class at Charter Oak. She said she is “excited” to be back in school.
Several fifth graders from Lindsey Roberts’ class said they weren’t ready to be done with their summer vacation, but they were happy about their teacher assignment. “My sister is best friends with her daughter,” one of the boys said, calling Mrs. Roberts “the best.”
“This for me has been a dream come true,” said the new principal as she welcomed families to the start of the school year.
“Over the last couple of months I’ve been on a listening tour, listening to families, and staff, and students. And throughout that listening tour there have been three words that have come up every single time: love, beautiful, and peace,” Rivera said.
She’s taken the messages she heard and transformed them into the theme for this year at Charter Oak: “Light the way for learning, because light is love, light is learning, and light is peace.”
Light describes hope, the hopes of the students, and their families as they begin the beautiful new school year, Rivera said.
“Peace is really the foundation of Charter Oak,” she added. “The first meaning of peace is ‘purpose.’ When you’re walking in your purpose, which means for our students doing what you love, being who you are, being the best that you can be, that’s when you’re peaceful. Always remember to be peaceful which means to be yourself.”
Peace also contains the word “ace,” Rivera said. “An ace means you take care of yourself, that you’re good to yourself and you’re also good to others, because here at Charter Oak we’re a caring community full of peace and love and that means you have to be an ‘ace’ for everyone, not only to the staff but to your peers and to all of us. … The more peace and love we have, the greater we will grow in learning.”
Although Wednesday was Rivera’s first first day of school in the role of Charter Oak principal, this isn’t her first experience at the school.
“I have felt so much love and appreciation coming back here to Charter Oak,” she said. She taught her very first lesson as an undergraduate student in the old Charter Oak building. “Who knew back then in 1995 that I would be standing here with you as the principal, the proud principal, of Charter Oak International Academy.”
Before students were dismissed to follow their teachers to the classrooms, several fifth graders read the Charter Oak Peace Pledge aloud, pledging to speak kindly, help others, take care of the earth, respect all people, and to do their part to create peace for all.
Rivera said she had already met about 200 of the school’s families at a meet and greet on Tuesday. It was the first time in three years that parents were able to meet with teachers in the classrooms during that open house.
Rivera hosted “popsicles with the principal,” which gave her a chance to have one-on-one discussions with many of the parents.
Interim Superintendent Andy Morrow said Wednesday was a great day, with no major issues.
“We had a fantastic first day and it was great to see all of the families and students ready to start the year with such positive energy,” he said. “As expected each year, it may take a couple of days to work out bus conflicts and we appreciate parents’ patience.”
West Hartford has roughly 9,250 students enrolled in the public schools this year. For more information about what Morrow said in advance about what to expect of this school year, click here. Details about the convocation for teachers, held on Monday, can be found here.
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