Ammiyoka Covington, 23, stands in line with her two boys in the lobby of P.S. 306 in Mount Hope along with several other families. Most of them are waiting to register their children for school, but Covington has brought her older son, Kaeden, for a different reason.
“He has two last names,” Covington says. “I wanted them to use the name that he’s been using for four years, and not the name that they have down.”
Wearing bucket hats to protect their faces from the sun, Kaeden, 4, and his brother, Nyzair, 3, are in their play clothes and are more interested in getting to the small playground behind the school.
“I just don’t want him to get confused,” Covington says.
Covington, Kaeden and Nyzair were just three of the dozens of Bronxites who, in a number of different ways last week, were preparing for an annual rite: The moment when summer ends and everyone from pre-K registrants to graduate students and crossing guards to principals goes back to school.
A team of reporters from the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism fanned out across the borough last Wednesday to see how people in stores, parks, police precincts, museums, libraries and, yes, even schools were approaching the last full week of summer vacation and the year that loomed ahead.
Longwood: On the other side of the Back to School sale
While kids in the Bronx tackle back-to-school jitters, some older residents look forward to post-summer bustle after what they say was a quiet season in the borough.
“Business has been slow,” says Fatima Drammeh, 44, general manager of the Longwood chain of children’s retail store, Kidstown.
“It picks up a lot the last three days before school starts,” she says, arranging a shelf on the ground floor. “Lots of people come here to buy uniforms.”
Drammeh, who has been managing the store for a decade, says the staff has been cut to 24 from 35 over the years in the three-floor location on Southern Boulevard.
“People don’t have money,” she said, standing beside rows of items marked with discounted prices. “The economy is bad.”
But Drammeh is optimistic foot traffic will pick up next week once school is back in session.
“You’ll see me smiling whenever there’s a crowd,” she added.
Her daughter, Mariama Drammeh, 22, who works at Kidstown as a cashier, says this time of year is her favorite part of the job.
“The lines get crazy and all the registers are used,” Drammeh says as she bags a T-shirt for a customer.
One block away, Norma Delgado, 74, stands on a quiet corner dressed in her Hi-Viz crossing guard uniform. She’s been on the job in the area for 17 years. Delgado looks forward to being busier when schools re-open – and to seeing familiar faces.
“Some kids come back to visit me from college,” she says. “I see them change from pre-K to third grade and junior high school.”
For Silvia Bernardez, 25, of Washington Park and her daughter Irene Morales, 6, the first-day-of-school excitement is mutual. After Bernardez walks her daughter to school to begin first grade, she’ll head off to Mandl College of Allied Health in Midtown to begin her first year of nursing school
Samuel Martinez, 36, owner of Sam’s Barber Shop on Westchester Avenue, says he can’t wait for classes to resume for his three daughters.
“You get a break because they’re not in the house all the time,” he says. – Alexandra Semenova
Tremont: Back-to-School at the Precinct
The NYPD 48th Precinct in the Bronx looks a little different on this afternoon.
A rock climbing wall, bouncy house, radio station and school backpacks are on full display outside the building for a “Back to School Giveaway” that offers backpacks filled with school supplies to neighbor children.
Jessica Vazquez, 33, brought some of her children to the giveaway, and came away with pencils, sharpeners, crayons, paper, coloring books and more.
Vazquez says the event, sponsored by NYPD with community groups, is a good opportunity to get out of the house, enjoy the day and get free stuff for her daughter in the seventh grade and twin boys in fifth grade. Vazquez says she has already bought some school supplies and still needs to buy more, but appreciates the savings.
In addition, Vazquez says community events with police officers are important, especially for children who see the police in a positive light.
“I see little kids here who might want to try and be officers and try to help out in their community,” she says.
The 48th Precinct’s chaplain, Hector Baez, says he’s done this annual event for many years, but seeing happy kids never gets old.
“A lot of kids don’t have nothing to go back to school with and seeing their faces when they get that book bag is enough for me,” says Baez. “It’s a joy seeing them, you know, knowing they have no worries going back to school.”
Baez says the next giveaway is before Christmas, when the 48th Precinct will give toys away. – Reynaldo Leanos Jr.
Parkchester: Counting down, at the Library
At the Parkchester Library, some parents and younger children looked at books together, a few older kids read books on their own and a few worked – or played – on the library’s computers.
The library, steps away from the Parkchester Metro Station, offers a number of summer programs that are winding down, including a reading club that allows kids who read the most books to collect prizes such as free Yankee tickets.
Sitting across from each other, Michael Li, 9, and Yandel Salazar, 11, whisper instructions to each other as they play the video game “Minecraft.” Both say they are excited about going back to school, Michael is “looking forward to those fun technology games” while Yandel is ready to get back to the soccer field. – Laura M. Olivieri Robles
Concourse: View from the Park
In the Concourse neighborhood of the Bronx, Jacqueline Washington, 58, sits on a bench with friends, sharing her potato chips with the squirrels of Poe Park.
Washington who is retired, helps look after her four grandchildren. Her granddaughter, Dream Washington, is going into her junior year of high school.
“Her mother works two jobs, so we spend a lot of time together,” Washington says. “She’s very bright. She’ll be 16 in December and she’s going into the 11th grade.”
Across the park, Marisol Gonzalez sits next to her son, Gabriel, as they watch his older sister Maya play on the playground.
Gabriel, 8, is about to start the third grade next week. Maya, 10, is going into the fourth grade.
Gonzalez says going back to school is expensive. The cost of supplies, uniforms and clothes added up $300.
But Gonzalez, who works as a nurse in a retirement home, says the uniforms mean she doesn’t have to buy as many new clothes during the school. “I’m glad they have to wear uniforms four days a week because it makes it a little easier,” she says.
Gonzalez says she is excited for her kids, but at least one of her kids isn’t looking forward to it.
“Not really,” says Gabriel. – Rob Dozier
Riverdale: Students are Excited … Mostly
The Staples on West 234th Street is a busy place in the days before school starts as students stock up school supplies.
And nobody seemed to be complaining. Not very much, anyway.
“I look forward to meeting new people in school, and getting to study new stuff in different subjects,” says Danna Castillo, who is returning to elementary school at Manhattan Christian Academy in Inwood.
“Excited, right?” Flora Celaj asks her son, Damon, about his upcoming entry into P.S. 81’s accelerated program.
Damon nods yes, but isn’t certain about how school will be different for him in the accelerated program. “I don’t know,” he says.
“It’s a little more advanced,” his mom says.
Taj Walters, who’s starting sixth grade at M.S./H.S. 141, says he isn’t worried. “I studied, so I don’t think it’s gonna be hard for me,” he says. “I think it’ll be pretty easy for me.”
“I’m gonna be a senior, so I’m kind of excited to do that,” says Nazifa Mossobbir, who is at Brooklyn Tech. “Kinda nervous to apply for colleges, stuff like that.”
“Tests start in October, I have to prepare for college as well,” adds her friend Sumiya Laky, a rising sophomore at DeWitt Clinton High School. “Junior year, gonna be stressful.” -Ben Jay
Unionport: On the Verge of Pre-K
The early afternoon is the best time to be at Black Rock Playground, Jeffrey Downer says. He and his son, Jacob, have the small playground almost to themselves.
This afternoon is one of the last times Downer, 40, will be able to come to the park before Jacob starts pre-kindergarten. The boy is enrolled at the Sunshine Developmental School in Queens, where his mother lives.
But Downer says he and Jacob will keep coming to the park after school starts on Wednesdays and Thursdays, Downer’s usual days off from his job as a cook.
Downer will meet Jacob at the nearby school bus stop after school on Wednesdays and drop him off the next morning. Both ways Jacob will take the Q44 bus, which picks up a block from Downer’s house in Parkchester and drops off a block from Jacob’s school in Queens.
It’s a convenient bus route, Downer says, but a long one.
As Downer talks, Jacob runs up and down the playground equipment. He sends matchbox cars down the slide. His scooter is propped against the bench where his dad is sitting.
Jacob is excited for school, Downer says, because he will get to ride the school bus.
“I’m excited,” Downer says. “He’s excited, so I’m excited.”
Jacob runs up to his dad. Downer lifts off his son’s baseball cap and kisses him on the head.
They are on their way home for lunch, then maybe to the library, Downer says. Or they may come back here, to the playground.
“We can’t do this in the winter,” Downer says. “We might as well soak it up as much as we can now.”– Graison Dangor
Concourse Village: The Museum Goes Back to School
Will Henry, 41, a commercial real estate broker and father of two children, who will go back to school next week, fondly recalls his childhood in the South Bronx, when schools offered arts programs such as a band, a glee club and a drama club.
But drastic cuts in funding for arts programs have changed all that, Henry says. “They basically have eliminated the arts in New York City public schools,” he says.
A study by the city comptroller’s office concludes that almost “half of the schools that lack both a certified arts teacher and an arts or cultural partnership are located in the South Bronx.”
The Bronx Museum of the Arts wants to help bring back the arts. The museum has arranged partnerships with P.S 73, I.S 218, and the School for Excellence—all schools in the area in need of a significant arts program, says Patrick Rowe, who oversees school and community partnerships for the museum.
Rowe says he knows of a few schools in the area that have “three or four art teachers,” and those schools are not on the museum’s radar for bringing in groups of students from under-served schools for museum tours. “We would know we’re not bringing them something that they need,” Rowe says.
And he says the museum’s tours should not be seen as a substitute for in-school arts classes and programs. “The schools we partner up with tend to be schools that are in need of arts programing,” Rowe says, adding, “There is a big difference between a visit to a museum, and having an art teacher who is at the school every day of the week.”
Meanwhile, Will Henry is sending his son, a high school junior, to the Fordham School of the Arts—far from his neighborhood in the South Bronx—just so he can attend a strong drama program. – Sharif Paget
East Tremont: Ready for a New School
Candice Cruz is gearing up for the school year by registering her sons, Michael and Bishop, in schools near their new home in East Tremont, the Bronx. Last month, she and the boys moved out of the homeless shelter in Queens where they had lived for almost two years.
Cruz, a single mother, says Michael and Bishop wanted to stay at last year’s school, where they both had special education plans and lots of friends, but she’s pleased that their new school is closer to home.
“My kids wanted to stay in their school but they’d take the train and it would be two hours – I couldn’t take it. What if something happens to them when they’re going to school in the morning?” Cruz says. “I told them, your friends don’t make you. Your education does.”
On this day, Cruz is making sure that the boys are officially enrolled, and their special ed programs are in place. Retired DOE employees greet her, along with other families, outside the building. They redirect her to Walton High School, one of the two locations responsible for registering all Bronx students before Sept. 15.
Cruz and her sons take the bus to Walton High School, in the busy auditorium a DOE employee hands her a pile of forms and a red lottery ticket stamped with a number: 572. Thirty-four people are ahead of her before she can meet with a representative to review her sons’ programs and where they will be placed in their school.
Cruz sits with her sons near the front of the auditorium. She takes a pen out of her bag and starts to fill out their forms, listing their names, birthdays, social security numbers, and address of their last schools. She fills in a box: “ADHD.”
Cruz and her sons wait for hours to meet with an employee who confirms the boys’ special ed programs and assigns them to classrooms.
Cruz has one last errand: a Staples run to continue stocking the two new backpacks donated by the Coalition for the Homeless.
“At Staples, I saw they have a pack of 12 plastic folders for $11.99,” she says. “That should last them the year. But boys are so rough – so who knows!” – Willa Rubin
Orchard Beach: Soaking Up the Last of Summer
Bronx natives Justice Aponte, 11, and his sister Layla, 9, relish their last summer moments playing in the sand on Orchard Beach while their mother chats with a lifeguard nearby. It is a breezy afternoon in late August, and the beach is mostly empty.
Between sandcastles and swimming, the Aponte family talks about preparing to go back to school. “I’m excited for gym class,” says Layla, while scooping handfuls of sand. She will be entering the fourth grade at P.S. 186 in Manhattan. Her brother Justice will be starting middle school at a separate school nearby. “I am going into the sixth grade,” says Justice. “I’m excited to learn Spanish and make new friends.”
Down the beach, sisters-in-law Vilma and Cynthia Calderon talk school supplies while their three sons take a lunch break. “We used Edukit to get school supplies. It’s online and connected to the school,” says Vilma. She says the service allows parents to purchase prepackaged supplies curated by their school, saving time and stress.
Although Cynthia says she used a similar online service last year for school, she prefers the in-store experience. “I like the novelty of the store for my sons,” says Cynthia. “There is nothing like picking out your own folders and such at a store.”
For some out on the sand, visiting Orchard Beach is a tradition. “I’ve been coming here since I was a little girl,” says Michele Hennessey, here with her niece Leila, 7. “We are passing on the tradition.”
Leila will be entering the second grade at P.S. 94 in Riverdale. “I already have school supplies,” says Leila. The two are enjoying their last moments together for the summer. “We were so happy when we got here. It’s a good day,” Hennessy says. – Madeleine Crenshaw
University Heights: After Incarceration, Man Goes to College
When he was 12 years old, Utshu Lungange was out with some friends in Harlem. They suggested robbing someone. He objected. “They called me a sissy,” Lungange recalls.
He eventually joined in, helping his friends commit street muggings, and ended up spending a weekend in the Spofford Juvenile Detention Center in the Bronx.
Ten years later, Lungange has returned to the borough for classes at Bronx Community College. “I gave myself a second chance because time is running out,” he says. “I’m starting to notice how much of an effect I have on people who look up to me.”
On a recent afternoon, Lungange reclines on a couch in the school’s multicultural center. Hip-hop blares as turkey wraps are served to a gathering of the Black Male Initiative, an organization that provides mentorship for men from underrepresented groups. Women make up a majority of the students at BCC and graduate at a higher rate than their male counterparts, according to College Tuition Compare, a website for prospective students.
After his arrest, Lungange moved in with his aunt and uncle in Hagerstown, Maryland, which he compared to the upscale lifestyle in the TV series “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
“Like Will Smith,” says Lungange, who graduated from high school in 2014 and enrolled in Hagerstown Community College.
He dropped out a year and a half later. But now he is trying again.
“I’m nervous about my fear of failure. But once you have a support system, that fear won’t really influence you,” Lungange says, gesturing to his peers at the event. “My goal is to be the light, so that the same young men that I hung out with can see that, and be inspired and transformed.” – Max Zahn
Bedford Park: What They’ll Miss
Not everybody is stressed out about going back to school.
“I’m excited for the first day of school,” Mia Pepedonovich, 7, says as she rides her bright green scooter around Harris Park. “It is the only day I will not have any homework.”
Mia’s father, Tomo Pepedonovich, 58, says his daughter and two sons, Giovanni, 5, and Dennis, 8, are excited to see their friends on the first day of school. Pepedonovich, a Bronx resident since 1993, says the return to school means a change in schedules for him, too.
“I’m going to have to pick them up and drop them off at school and then help them with their homework,” he says.
Across the park from Pepedonovich and his three kids, Anthony Melendez, relaxes in a red camping chair with his sneakers and socks in front of his bare feet, looking through a Daily News.
Melendez, a part-time doorman, is watching his nephews Sebastian and Benjamin, who will start second and fourth grade, respectively.
“I’m going to miss barbecuing chicken burgers, going to Orchard Beach three or four times a week and going to Yankee games,” Melendez said. “But they are not dreading going back to school.”
Across the street at Lehman College, Sabrina Kwade, 22, has already started classes and is not happy about it.
“It’s sad,” says Kwade, perched on the bleachers above the baseball fields. “I’m looking forward to nothing.”
A junior at Lehman, Kwade says at least she is one year closer to graduating with a degree in ABC (Anthropology, Biology, and Chemistry).
“I’m going to miss going to the beach and those long summer walks,” she says.
“I’m going to miss the weather,” said Shelby Wright, a senior at Lehman College. “Summertime is the time to go out and look cute.”
Sebastian Melendez, 10, and two friends swing from the monkey bars chasing each other up and down the slides. Melendez has been to the park a lot this summer. He says he is not ready for classes to begin.
“I’m not looking forward to having to do the homework, because you already learned it and then you do it again at home,” says Melendez, who will be in fifth grade this year.
For some students, a new school year is a chance to become a part of a team.
“We want to do softball,” says Amy Peiz,15, as she plays catch with her friend Ashley. The girls started practicing two weeks ago and come to the park every morning. “We are just trying to play, because we want to be focused not only on school but on softball too, that way we won’t be doing anything bad.”
But both girls say they will miss the freedom of summer.
“I could go to sleep late, wake up late, eat all day, and watch TV all day,” says Peiz.
Shiovan Maysonet, 34, an at-home mom whose kids are 2 and 7, says this time of the year is always bittersweet. “I’m going to miss making memories with the kids,” says Maysonet. “I’m going to miss taking them out to the park and the beach.” – Mark Suleymanov and Camille Smith
Williamsbridge: New Year, New Words
At Rienzi Playground #2, Jacqueline Taylor, 50, sits on a bench, watching Zhane and Ashante Jones play.
Taylor, 50, a native of London, has been babysitting them, part-time, for about two years now. She says she has been mixing late-summer work and school preparations for Zhane, 4, who will enter Pre-K at a school on White Plains Road next week.
Taylor says she’s not only coaching Zhane on numbers and letters, but on classroom discipline. “How to maintain her space and respect other people personal space,” Taylor says.
Taylor says Zhane can read chapter books on a fourth-grade level and has been introduced to writing, spelling, and addition and subtraction.
Handed a professional pamphlet, the little girl reads a passage and pronounces words such as “innovation,” “technologies” and “democratic.”
Zhane may be the smartest kid she’s had in all her years of babysitting, Taylor says, but her sister Ashanti, 3, may be even smarter. -Aliyah Veal
Morris Park: Summer’s End Means a Slowdown
The shops in Morris Park are anticipating the usual shift in business as the seasons change and students return to school.
“There’s way more business during the summer,” says Antonio Calderón Melendez, an employee at Peachwave Frozen Yogurt. “We get a little busy after school, but not as busy as during the summer.”
On warm summer days, young customers come in throughout the day, he says. “When school starts, you only see kids here after school – after five o’clock, six o’clock.”
At Huntington Learning Center of The Bronx, a tutoring company, the reverse is true: summer is slower. “It’s definitely not as busy,” says Cheryl Murphy, 38, the center director. -Talib Visram
Mount Hope: A Change of Name
Covington, the mother we met at P.S. 306 in Mount Hope, is a single mom and wants to drop her surname from Kaeden’s birth certificate, which she admits will be a lengthy process. In the meantime, she’s hoping to change his name on his school records.
“I felt like I should have the choice, since I named him,” she says. “If they don’t respect my wishes, I’ll take him to a school that will.”
Covington lives close to the school, and says both her boys are starting school full time, though in different programs.
“It’ll be hard for them since we were together for three years,” she says. “I never ask anybody to watch them.”
Covington has high hopes for Kaeden in school, and hopes he will get to a first-grade level by the end of his first year at P.S. 306.
“We’ll do a whole lot of workbooks,” she says. “My older son will be doing a lot of writing.” And more, she says: “I make him write his name a lot, I’ll make him write his numbers, one through 20, and we’ll practice sign language.” – Sarah Min