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Second wave of back to school for LI districts

Brooklyn Grier, 6, gets a kiss goodbye from

Brooklyn Grier, 6, gets a kiss goodbye from her mom, Heather Grier, as she gets ready to start her first day of school at West Elementary in Long Beach. (Sept. 9, 2013) Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa

Students in 67 school districts headed to class Monday morning in Long Island's second big back-to-school wave.

While most returned to familiar settings, others were delighted by gleaming, renovated facilities -- in some cases restored from superstorm Sandy's damage.

The front entrance of West Elementary School in Long Beach was adorned with a painted yellow brick road, a reminder that there's no place like home. The school, which 10 months ago took on 4 feet of floodwater, reopened after a $6 million rebuilding project, some of it ongoing.

Debra Pearce, whose daughter, Makayla, started fourth grade, said the reopening is critical for Long Beach's hard-hit West End, where she lives.

"We're back to our family," Pearce said. "It's a great feeling."

Makayla said last year -- when West's students moved into the East and Lindell elementary schools -- was "crazy."

Principal Sandra Schneider and other staff wore ruby slippers Monday as part of their "Wizard Of Oz" theme.

"There's nothing like being back in this building," said Schneider, who still is rebuilding her own Sandy-damaged Oceanside home.

The cost of the district's restoration and cleanup is expected to top $50 million, which it intends to pay for with Federal Emergency Management Agency money and insurance.

The school's opening gives parents and the community renewed hope; about 40 percent of its students are from the West End.

"The timing is really good because we get to restart fresh with the school year," superintendent David Weiss said.

The Central Islip district restored full-day kindergarten for 520 students, which was trimmed back to half-days three years ago, and brought fifth-graders from the middle school into elementary schools, a change that thrilled mother Maria Guardado. The switch means her son and daughter are together at O'Neill Elementary.

Guardado said her 10-year-old son, Gabriel, sprang out of bed Monday and her daughter, Giovanna, 7, was glad to return to class because she has the same teacher as last year: Suzanne Leopold.

"She does a lot of funny stuff," Giovanna said, sitting at her desk with a flower barrette in her hair. "Sometimes she laughs when she reads us books."

The teacher, who had taught first grade for 16 years and this year is teaching second grade, greeted each student with a hug. "I love this," Leopold said, standing before them. "This is great."

Melissa Castiglione, 17, was already focused on day one of the school year: The senior at Lindenhurst High School is eyeing top colleges. She's already visited Cornell, the University of Chicago and Columbia.

Next stop: Yale.

Castiglione said she is both excited and nervous about the application process.

"I think I'm ready," she said. "I think I can do it."

John Mahurin, 9, and a fourth-grader at Daniel Street Elementary in Lindenhurst, was overjoyed to be back in class. He's eager to build on his writing skills; he penned his own student newspaper in the third grade, even writing an advice column, his teachers said.

"I had so much fun," he said.

Mahurin said he's excited about the new school year in part because his class will have the chance to watch baby ducklings hatch inside an incubator kept in the classroom.

"I'm looking forward to it," he said.

Only one Long Island district -- East Moriches -- remains to open, with students to begin Tuesday.

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