Mona Shield Payne
Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Jonathan Mondragon sniffles loudly as tears well up in his glasses-rimmed eyes.
It’s the first day of school at Cambeiro Elementary School, and the 5-year-old kindergartner is on the blacktop, bawling as he waits in line with his peers.
Grisel Figueroa gives her crying son a hug and a kiss and then retreats to the crowd of camera-toting parents in the back.
Jonathan remains inconsolable — snot-nosed, full-on-waterworks inconsolable.
“I feel like crying with him,” Figueroa, 25, says, wiping away a tear as she casts a worried look toward her son. “This is it. He’s so big, growing up so fast.”
Nervous and excited faces were plentiful on Monday as more than 309,000 schoolchildren returned to Clark County public schools, kicking off yet another year for the nation’s fifth-largest school district.
First-day jitters were particularly acute for the School District’s incoming kindergartners — members of the high school class of 2025. That’s because most Las Vegas kindergartners never experience preschool, which exposes youngsters to the structure and expectations of grade school.
Only a third of Cambeiro’s 100 kindergartners took preschool last year. That means for most of these kindergartners, Monday marked their first time in school apart from their beloved home and family, Principal Patty Rosales said.
“There’s always some separation anxiety with kindergartners,” Rosales said. “I was one of these kids — all I wanted to do was to stay at home with my grandma. We just have to provide a lot of tender loving care.”
Teachers spent the past few weeks of summer preparing for their students. They participated in training and redecorated their classrooms, transforming cinderblock rooms into inviting spaces.
“These teachers go above and beyond to help these students,” said School Board member Lorraine Alderman, who visited Cambeiro on Monday. “They’re totally committed to these kids. That’s what back-to-school is all about: starting the year off on the right foot.”
It’s time for breakfast, and teachers begin herding their kindergartners into the cafeteria for their first school meal. All of the students at Cambeiro — located in a low-income neighborhood near North Las Vegas — participate in the federal free and reduced-price meal program.
Although most of the children eagerly take their pretzel, string cheese and boxes of chocolate milk and juice, a few students have other concerns.
Kenneth Medina, wearing a green plaid shirt, clings onto his father’s legs, refusing to let go. The boy’s teacher, Dena Saisa, gently tugs Kenneth away and begins leading him toward the cafeteria doors.
The 5-year-old kindergartner isn’t going to have it. With tears cascading down his face, he drags his feet and cries for his parents at the top of his lungs.
“You’re going to be OK,” Saisa says, trying to console him but steadfast in her mission. Saisa deftly pulls Kenneth, kicking and screaming, through the school doors.
A few anxious parents sneak into the cafeteria to check up on their children, but they are quickly ushered away by teachers.
“It’s making it harder for them if you stay,” a teacher tells them. “Say goodbye and move on.”
Parents have it tough, too, Rosales said. Adults also feel a sense of separation anxiety dropping off their kindergartners for the first time, she said.
“We understand it’s hard,” Rosales said. “It’s hard to trust your children with total strangers.”
As the children finish their breakfast, teachers begin cleaning up the cafeteria and arranging the children into single-file lines. Jonathan wipes away his tears and throws out his trash.
“All right, are we ready?” says teacher Julie Cohen. “Follow me!”
As they head down the hallway, Cohen peppers her students with questions: Do you think the classroom is large or small? Does it have many toys? Is it colorful?
Jonathan nods his head and raises his hand in agreement. Colorful backpacks — covered with SpongeBob SquarePants, Barbie and Justin Bieber — bob up and down through the halls.
“I don’t think I’ve seen a smarter group of kids,” Cohen tells the group of well-behaved children. “We’re going to have a great year. I can already tell.”
After a quick bathroom pit stop, the students enter their classroom; for some, it’s the first time in a classroom. As Jonathan’s now-dry eyes scan the books and toys, small chairs and round desks, a bewildered look falls across his face.
“Welcome to our classroom!” Cohen says. “What do you think?”
Jonathan grins and gives Cohen two big thumbs up.