There was a celebration all across the city on Wednesday morning as more than 65,000 LBUSD students returned to campus for the first day of the 2023-24 school year.

At Garfield Elementary in West Long Beach, a host of special guests lined up to greet parents and students before visiting a few classrooms. Long Beach Mayor Rex Richardson, LBUSD Superintendent Dr. Jill Baker, along with school board members Diana Craighead, Maria Isabel Lopez, Erik Miller, and Doug Otto were all on hand to welcome students for their first day back.

“There’s just something exciting about back-to-school time,” said Richardson. “The kids have fresh haircuts, new school uniforms; there’s optimism, new friends, new experiences. And it’s great to see the little ones, the kindergarteners. They’re taking those first steps on their learning journey, and it’s exciting to be here and be a part of that. And as a dad of two young ones going to first grade and third grade, I’m sort of walking this journey along with many of the students and parents here in our city.”

David Vivas, fifth grade, and his cousin Valeria Garcia, third grade, high five school board members as the students arrive for the first day of school at Garfield Elementary School in Long Beach, Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Richardson also emphasized the importance of education in building a strong community and how that’s been a central focus of Long Beach.

“It takes a village to raise a child—the old proverb—well, I get to be the mayor of this village. And it’s our responsibility to make sure that we all do what we can to make sure the kids have what they need and they can lead healthy, happy, and safe lives,” Richardson said.

As usual, there are changes in the school district this year. Superintendent Baker pointed to the LBUSD’s $10 million investment into arts programs at all levels. The district has also continued to expand its wellness centers on middle school and high school campuses, with those services now being offered full-time for middle school students.

Many schools across the district have new furniture this year, plus technology and facility improvements made both inside and outside of the classroom.

“We are about halfway through a full district furniture replacement thanks to the use of our COVID relief funds,” Baker said. “We have our learning acceleration support plan, and one aspect of that plan is infrastructure. So it’s upgrades to technology, it’s water stations, shade structures; and it includes furniture replacement for every single classroom in our district. By this time next year, we’ll be fully complete and every teacher’s classroom will have new furniture.”

Long Beach Unified School District Superintendent Jill Baker, high five students parents and future students as they arrive for the first day of school at Garfield Elementary School in Long Beach, Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Baker said some classroom furniture was more than 50 years old. She added that the $60 million investment will offer teachers more flexibility in organizing desks and make learning easier for students.

Wednesday morning was also a trip down memory lane for Baker, who served as Garfield’s principal from 1998 to 2005. That was her first experience as a principal, and she has fond memories of her time on campus.

“It is like a homecoming. In fact, out at the line this morning I had a number of parents say ‘You were my principal,’ and now they’re bringing their little ones here,” said Baker with a big smile. “So it’s just a really beautiful place to come back to. We’re also celebrating a new principal at Cabrillo High School today, Ngoc Nguyen, and Ngoc was a student at Garfield when I was the principal here. So lots of West Side community memories and celebrations happening for me today. It’s great to be home.”

Now in a position of leadership at the district office, Baker is several steps removed from the classroom, but she said that’s where she feels most at home. And especially at a place like Garfield which was so meaningful in her career, it was easy to reminisce about her time on campus.

“I miss having a deeper knowledge of a family, and what their needs are,” she explained. “I do miss that feeling of community when you live and work in a community, what that feels like to connect with people. When I was here there were 1200 kids and I’d say that I knew 90-plus percent of students’ names. So I do miss that, and I walked this neighborhood many times either walking a student home or connecting with the family. So community never feels the same when you’re superintendent, but I am at home in our classrooms.”