More than 130,000 students returned to public schools across Long Island Tuesday, as teachers, students and parents alike grappled with initial lessons tied to the much-debated Common Core academic standards.
Thirty-three districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties opened, and another 78 are to begin classes Wednesday. Thirteen districts start later this week or on Monday.
The back-to-school ritual was marked, as usual, by numerous hugs, a few tears and parting words of parental advice.
At Copiague Middle School, Melanie Pernell and her stepson, Prince McKnight, seemed to be going over a drill as they described his plans for middle school.
"I'm nervous because I'm going to sixth grade and will be switching classes," said Prince, 11. "I'm going to be calm," he added.
"And pay attention," Pernell said.
"And pay attention," he repeated.
"And take notes," she said.
"And take notes, and be good," he said.
"And worry about your education," she added.
Schools statewide are entering their third year with coursework reflecting the national Common Core standards -- guidelines that emphasize analytical reading skills and increase the amount of time that students spend solving "real world" problems in math.
At Tangier Smith Elementary School in Mastic Beach, teacher Michele Carasiti posed this question to her class of fourth-graders:
"Rudi collected five frogs. Eva collected three times as many. How many frogs did Eva collect?"
The multiplication problem yielded a clear-cut answer: 3 X 5 = 15.
Carasiti pressed further, though, asking students why the problem should be expressed as 3 X 5 rather than 5 X 3. This was because the problem involved three groups of five frogs -- reflecting Common Core's aim of encouraging students to think more deeply about the meaning of math, rather than simply running through drills.
"We're going to not only understand why math makes sense, but we're also going to learn how to explain it," Carasiti told her 26 students.
As the lesson continued, about 20 fourth-graders raised their hands with correct answers at the end of each exercise, indicating that most got the point. But some parents who had dropped youngsters off earlier in the day conceded that parts of the new math curriculum left them confused.
"As parents, we were taught to do it a different way," said Knieca Campbell, 34, who brought three sons to the Tangier Smith school and said she had found it difficult last year to advise them on math homework. "I use Google a lot."
Islandwide, total enrollment of about 437,000 students is projected to be down 1.3 percent from last year, though some schools are preparing for an influx of immigrant children from Central America who have crossed Mexico's border with the United States in recent months and have been released to relatives or guardians.
Kishore Kuncham, Freeport schools superintendent, said at least 19 unaccompanied minors from Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras are expected to start school in his district this week. Most are living with cousins or other relatives, he said.
Fifteen will attend the high school, one will go to the middle school and the remaining three will be enrolled at the elementary level, he said. He did not know if all were in attendance on the first day of school.
"I welcome them into our school district," Kuncham said. "We are here for them."
The superintendent voiced concern, however, about the potential financial strain on the district, especially if more immigrant children in similar circumstances enroll, and said he hopes Albany or the federal government will find a way to help financially.
Freeport serves about 7,000 students in all, many from lower-income households.
Copiague is another district with a significant immigrant population that may see increased enrollment of children from Central America who have been resettled.
Ivette Sanchez, who was dropping off her daughter Christina, 11, at Copiague Middle School, said she was a bit concerned about how the schools could deal with more students.
"I worry that they will need to get more help than everyone else," said Sanchez, 40, an X-ray technician. "I do have a lot of friends that their kids are not getting the help they need because there's so much of an overload already" of students needing additional resources.
Several other residents, though, said the district is in an immigrant community and should strive to offer those from other countries a quality education.
"I came just like them," said Julio Berríos, 46, a Honduran immigrant dropping off his son, Justin, 6, in first grade.
Berríos, speaking in Spanish, added, "We need to give children the opportunity because they are the future."