Principal Jose Ureña was out in front of McKinley Elementary School by 7:20 a.m. on Aug. 19 shaking hands, giving hugs and slapping high-fives as throngs of students arrived for the first day of school.
A third-year principal who came to the El Centro school by way of San Luis, Ariz., Ureña was engaging in the first of his three strategies for “treating the kids with lots of dignity, treating them with lots of respect, and earning their trust,” he said.
Located at 1177 N. 8th St., McKinley is starting implementation of a strategy Ureña said is known as “Capturing Kids’ Hearts,” because “once you capture their hearts, you capture their minds.”
The first of the three strategies, he explained, is to greet them at the door and find out: “Do they want a handshake, a high-five or a hug?”
McKinley was one of 12 schools in the El Centro Elementary School District to start the new school year Aug. 19. Among a district enrollment of more than 5,000, McKinley expected more than 500 students in kindergarten through sixth grade.
“There’s a lot of excitement to start the year,” Ureña said. “It’s nice to see the kids back, nice to see the parents back. It’s nice to have the first day of school.”
Ureña was jazzed to introduce the campus to “Capturing Kids’ Hearts,” on which the campus staff will be trained over two days in September. Prior to that, he’s starting with a set of strategies to build relationships among students and staff members.
Strategy number two will be writing a “social contract with the kids,” he added, “where kids, along with their teachers, create an agreement” that establishes how the students want to be treated, how they expect to treat their teachers, and how they intend to treat each other.
Step three will be a system of positive affirmations in which every student creates a pocket in their classrooms to hold positive messages from fellow students, Ureña said.
“Capturing Kids’ Hearts” is part of an enhanced safety mindset at the school and throughout the district. It focuses on “emotional safety,” while the school’s new “welcome center” addresses the physical safety of students and staff, he said.
The “welcome center,” is the idea of Ureña and school staff in coordination with district Superintendent Jon LeDoux and John Beltran, the district’s new safety coordinator. It will be a small, modular building at the front gate to announce visitors to the office staff.
McKinley is one of several district campuses where the office is in a central location away from the front entrance, which has been determined not to be the safest configuration in terms of knowing who’s on campus at all times, LeDoux said.
For the first day the “welcome center” was marked off by yellow caution tape. LeDoux, who was on campus with Beltran that morning, said the modular building is three weeks late but should arrive soon.
Besides the physical change, Ureña said McKinley is featuring emotional and social safety.
“We have a full-time psychologist this year. That’s huge,” he boasted.
Additionally, the school’s grant-funded After School Education and Safety program returns and will serve about 20 percent of students. It offers a safe, nurturing environment for participating students to be until 6 p.m. and includes educational and cultural activities, a healthy snack or meal, and tutoring programs.
Elizabeth Villaseñor and her husband, Chris, were dropping off their two children for the first day, emotional because it was five-year-old Ayden’s start of kindergarten.
“He’s nervous, and I’m scared for him,” Chris admitted. “It’s a new journey for him. But I’m excited for him, too.”
Clearly a close family, big sister KyAnna, 10, who was starting fifth grade, said she was “nervous,” but not for herself: “I’m nervous for him, and that’s all.”
Elizabeth noted, “It’s an amazing school. We’re excited to be coming back to school.”
The same was true for Lucero Rivera, mother to new fifth-grader Vanessa Dorame, 10, and new third-grader Valerie Dorame, 8.
“They were excited,” Rivera said, motioning toward her silent duo who were too shy to speak to a reporter. “We all thought the vacation was a little too long. They missed their friends.”
Meanwhile, the Correa family was all smiles and ready to get the year started when they stopped to chat just beyond the front gate.
“I feel like it’s a really important day for all the children …,” said father Antonio Correa before his wife, Laura, finished his sentence, adding “… because it’s the beginning of the new year and new learning.”
Laura said she’s excited “to see how much (her son) learns and how much he reads.”
Apparently their son, incoming fourth-grader Aydann, 9, is a voracious reader. Looking every bit the confident young man on his first day, a big smile spreading across his face, Aydann said last year he earned 124 points in the Accelerated Reader program.
“I want to get 200 this year,” he beamed.