Barbie, Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Jose Dotres and some pointed discussion on culture wars in Florida classrooms greeted the first day of school Thursday for more than 330,000 students at nearly 400 schools in Miami-Dade County.
“It’s cool, chillin’,” said one Miami Carol City sophomore.
Here’s how the day went at several schools:
So, how did Back to School Day go?
“Everything has gone well,” Miami-Dade Public School’s Superintendent Jose Dotres said as the first day of classes for the 2023-24 school year at Charles R. Drew K-8 Center neared the day’s dismissal bell around 2 p.m. Thursday.
“A smooth day of opening,” Dotres said at the school at 1775 NW 60th St. “It’s a new beginning and we are so very excited and happy to have the students back.”
As of Thursday afternoon, Dotres said he couldn’t provide any student enrollment numbers and said he likely won’t have the figures until late next week. Because the school year began on a Thursday, some parents will wait until Monday to register their children.
This year, an expanded state voucher program, which allows any family regardless of income levels to apply for funds to attend private school or home-school, could affect public school attendance.
The superintendent said the school district has about 200 instructional positions to fill, although that could vary depending on final student enrollment numbers.
“That number is never precise,” he cautioned.
The school district is hiring about 50 teachers per day to address the shortage, which is most dire in special needs classes, and high-level math and science, he said.
All 770 bus routes ran smoothly Thursday, although management handled about 20 of them, as the district still needs to hire at least 20 drivers.
Because of the record heat this summer, the district tested the air-conditioning systems earlier than prior years. As a result, the district received 20 calls about those issues on Thursday — about half what it got on the first day of the 2022-23 school year.
As Thursday wrapped, Dotres pleaded with parents and other family members to stay in touch.
“The greatest message is to please don’t stay in the margins,” Dotres said. “Speak to teachers. Get to know them. Connect with counselors and principals.”
Karla Hernandez-Mats, the president of United Teachers of Dade, the union that represents about 43,000 district employees, said parents should collaborate with teachers to withstand some of the more controversial laws and directives coming from Tallahassee related to schools.
“We want parents to come into our schools and tell us, ‘Hey, we’re here for you. We’ve got your back. Please teach my kid the truth.”
— JIMENA TAVEL
AMERICAN SENIOR HIGH
Dotres walked into American Senior High at 7:17 a.m., alongside some students rushing to make it in before the school year officially started.
“Good morning!” he said, as he passed the security staff at the entrance.
“Muchas gracias por todo lo que usted hace,” he told a cafeteria worker, thanking her in Spanish as he visited the kitchen.
He walked out and immediately shook senior Kevin Garcia’s hand.
“How are you feeling?” Dotres questioned.
“Good!” Garcia, 18, shot back.
Dotres then visited a classroom led by Ms. Kiury King, who’s been teaching special education to 10th graders for 27 years.
“How can we thank you for all you do?” he asked her.
“They thank me every day,” she said, looking at the students in front of her.
Earlier, about a dozen cheerleaders donning red, white and blue uniforms formed two lines to create a makeshift corridor at the entrance of American Senior High at 18350 NW 67th Ave. Waving pompons, they welcomed some of the about 1,670 students enrolled at the school before the start bell rang at 7:20. Behind the students, the school band played and sequined majorettes danced.
“All right, let’s go Patriots!” they chanted.
Jimmy Osorio, a Colombian native who lives in Hialeah, looked at the show and smiled. He had just dropped off his son, 15-year-old Sadoc Osorio, for his first day as a sophomore. They both felt “nervous but happy” about it, he said.
“This is very pretty; it’ll motivate students,” Osorio said.
— JIMENA TAVEL
BOB GRAHAM EDUCATION CENTER
Ian Velez, 9, was jumping around the sidewalk as he approached the Bob Graham Education Center in Miami Lakes, holding hands with his mother, Waleska Cordero.
Velez, wearing a new pair of red Skechers sneakers, and a Mario Brothers backpack, was told by his mother that needed to “behave” and “be a good boy.” He is “very excited to have a pizza lunch today,” she said. It’s Ian’s third year in the school.
He has special needs, diagnosed with autism, Cordero explained. Ian studies in a classroom with eight other students and has three teachers. “This is an amazing school; they have been very helpful with his needs,” his mother said.
Jadyon Suarez, 9, and her grandmother Jacqueline Delgado headed into the school but not quite all smiles.
Delgado said Jadyon, decked out with new white Jordan Nikes and a black backpack, was angry because the “party was over.”
— VERÓNICA EGUI BRITO
FIENBERG-FISHER K-8 CENTER
A big group of children and parents waited outside the school gates at Fienberg Fisher K-8 Center in Miami Beach, spilling out onto the street.
Once the gates opened, families exchanged hugs, kisses, and tears as the children made their way inside the campus.
Sebastian Duarte clung to his mom Kyara Garcia’s leg. It was the second grader’s first day of school, ever, after being home-schooled.
“He is very very social, so he needs to make friends,” said dad Arronte Duarte.
Sebastian broke into a huge grin, then led the way through the gate as his parents followed close behind.
— EMMA JANSSEN
HIALEAH-MIAMI LAKES SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL
Alondra Ayala, 14, was happy to get back to school and see her friends, but when she talked about how Black history would be taught, her tone changed.
Alondra, of Mexican origin, said it’s not fair what people are saying about slavery. What are the benefits of being a slave? she asked.
Rebeca Suarez, 14, was nervous. A freshman, this was the first day at the school; last year, she was in school in Venezuela. She and her family arrived from Nueva Esparta, an island off the coast of Venezuela, about a year ago.
Amanda Soto, 18, was wistful about her last year in high school. A senior, she came to school with a paper crown, a senior tradition representing the last year at the school. She met up with her friend, Natalie Crespo, 16, who handed her a bunch of paper crowns.
“I’m very excited to be back and be in my last year of high school,” Amanda said.
— VERÓNICA EGUI BRITO
MIAMI BEACH SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL
Jasmine Herrera-Vega, 17, headed into 12th grade at Miami Beach Senior High School Thursday morning.
The trans student will be taking his first honors class this year — Honors Art — and is “really excited.”
Jasmine wants to be a psychologist, but is worried about restrictions on psychology classes, after Gov. Ron DeSantis’ recent spar with the College Board over AP Psychology.
The College Board had said it wouldn’t recognize Florida’s Advanced Placement psychology course as it omitted lessons on gender identity and sexual orientation, which has been part of the course for 30 years. Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr., after an outcry, then said the course could be taught with those lessons. More than 28,000 Florida students took the course last year.
“We just got psychology in this school, and it feels like they’re gonna take it away from us,” Jasmine said.
Mia Marquet, a 15-year-old sophomore, is also interested in psychology, but knows the curriculum has come under political fire.
“I believe that we should be able to study whatever we want,” Mia said. “Being exposed to things like the LGBT community won’t affect us in any way.”
Jasmine has also noticed increased hostility toward LGBTQ students.
“I’m closeted, so I can’t [speak about LGBTQ issues] at home. This is the only safe space I had and they keep taking my s--- away from me.”
“They don’t care because it doesn’t affect them. It’s these white privileged men who don’t have to deal with the s--- we do,” said Jasmine.
— EMMA JANSSEN
CAROL CITY HIGH
As Trayvon Taylor sauntered to the front gates of Carol City High in Miami Gardens, a mix of emotion plastered across his face. The sun had just risen and the 14-year-old was clearly tired. Still, the idea of being back at school brought him a slight sense of joy.
“It’s cool, chillin’,” said the sophomore, dressed in a black skullie, black hoodie and black pants that matched his crisp pair of Nike Off-White “Lot 50” Dunk Lows. “Always good to see everybody.”
Although Taylor had not initially heard of the changes to the Black history curriculum, he expressed a sentiment similar to many who learned that the Florida Board of Education adopted standards for teaching Black history that would suggest, in part, that slaves could have benefited from their bondage.
“It’s kind of crazy,” Taylor said before heading inside the school.
— C. ISAIAH SMALLS II
MIAMI GARDENS ELEMENTARY
Sina Cropp said she did affirmations with her 5-year-old son Landon before his first day of kindergarten at Miami Gardens Elementary to ensure he knows his worth. And while her son might be a bit young to grasp the consequences of Florida’s updated Black history curriculum, she completely disagreed with the changes.
“They need to talk about” our history, Cropp said. “It’s crazy that they don’t want us to learn about it.”
Imani Asim Sinclair felt similarly, adding that his “future is the home school anyway.”
“When it comes to history, you can’t expect schools to teach everything,” said Sinclair, the father of 6-year-old first grader, Taj.
Although Sinclair no longer lives in Miami Gardens, he made an extra effort to walk his daughter to school. Sinclair described the drop-off as “pretty cool” considering he also attended the elementary school.
“It’s full circle,” Sinclair said, adding that someone he went to school with now teaches there, which made him “feel old.” Still, the idea of his daughter not learning her full history made him feel “not too good.” He then reiterated the importance of parents in the lives of their children.
“History should be taught by the parents,” Sinclair said.
— C. ISAIAH SMALLS II
SOUTH MIAMI MIDDLE
Isaiah Allen, 11, grinned ear-to-ear as he walked toward South Miami Middle School with his father on the first day of school.
Isaiah said he was starting fifth grade, before a quick correction. “Sorry, sixth!” he said, laughing. Thursday was his first day as a middle school student.
Isaiah said his favorite subject is science and that he’s excited to make new friends and meet his teacher.
His dad, Fitzgerald Allen, said he was proud of his son and happy for him to be in the art program at the magnet school. Isaiah likes to draw. “He was doing galaxies last week,” Allen said.
— CATHERINE ODOM
Mélissa Gracia wore her sons’ names on her necklace as she snapped their picture on the first day of school. Fabio, 5, and Alexio, 8, beamed as they posed for the shot.
Gracia said she was nervous — maybe even more nervous than the boys. Fabio is in kindergarten, and Alexio is a third grader at Sunset Elementary School.
At Sunset, Fabio and Alexio take classes in French. Gracia said the language is important because she and her husband emigrated from Haiti. Sunset is a magnet school that offers curriculum taught in French, Spanish and German.
Alice Fatjo, a fourth grader, said she is most excited for her Spanish classes.
“Liar,” said her mom, Yodi Martinez, laughing. “We can’t believe our little girl is already a fourth grader,” Martinez said.
Siblings came to cheer on their big brothers and sisters. Abraham Rolander pushed his 2-year-old son Oliver in a stroller. Oliver’s sister, Audrey, climbed onto the back of the stroller and rode along. Audrey is starting kindergarten, where she will study Spanish. She spoke animatedly about going to orientation the day before and meeting her teacher.
Lina Baumberger, 5, brought a Barbie with her as she walked her older sister Cora to school.
The first day of school can be an emotional moment for parents and students alike. For Gracia, the goodbyes went smoothly. After dropping the boys off, she recounted, smiling, that her sons “didn’t even cry.”
— CATHERINE ODOM
PONCE DE LEON MIDDLE SCHOOL
It was still raining just before dismissal at Ponce de Leon Middle School in Coral Gables.But that didn’t stop Martha Lopez from waiting with an umbrella to pick up her son Francesco from his first day of seventh grade. Lopez said she always drops him off and picks him up.
“For me, it’s very important,” Lopez said, “even when the weather is like this.”
When the day ended at 3:50 p.m., middle schoolers wearing blue uniform polos spilled out onto the sidewalk near the main entrance. Some raced to reunite with their parents, eager to debrief the first day. Luisanna Alvarado’s mother kissed her repeatedly on the cheek as they embraced after her first day of sixth grade.
Luisanna said her favorite part of the day was the end of it.
Viviana Espinoza waited on the sidewalk for a few minutes before her mom picked her up. “It’s really raining, bro,” she said, looking up at the gray sky.
Viviana started sixth grade Thursday, and she said even though she got lost in the new building, she liked “everything” about her first day. She added that her mom was more nervous than she was.
It’s not just parents and students who get nervous on the first day of school. Yuneisy Morell, who teaches reading and creative writing at the school, said she still feels the nerves at the start of a new school year.
“It’s always anxious,” she said. “Even though I’ve done this for 18 years.”