Guadalupe students who started the 2019-20 school year at Kermit McKenzie Intermediate School were greeted by high-fives, soul music and words of encouragement from the school's new principal.
Like many of the fifth grade students stepping onto the campus for the first time, Thursday morning was newly minted Principal Alexander Jauregui's first day on campus.
The former Nipomo High administrator replaces former principal Gabe Solorio, who took an early retirement in July after five years with the Guadalupe Union School District.
"I'm excited," said Jauregui, who arrived at the school at 6:45 a.m. to prepare for the day. "I think the staff here is awesome and I've heard a lot of great things. They welcomed me with open arms and we're ready to hit the ground running."
The two-campus school district has seen some major changes the past two years. Last July, the district's board of trustees hired Emilio Handall, formerly of Vista del Mar Union, to replace former superintendent Ed Cora.
A new building popped up on the McKenzie campus a few months later, a part of the district's first phase of total reconfiguration.
Fifth graders set foot on the Main Street campus for the first time ever that school year as district officials and Guadalupe residents await construction of a new school in the Pasadera housing development.
Jauregui, a Santa Barbara native who moved to Los Alamos and graduated from Righetti — the school McKenzie graduates feed into — is the latest, an addition Handall said will better prepare McKenzie students to enter and graduate high school.
"Alex stood out because of his obvious passion for curriculum, instruction and assessment," Handall said last week. "He's very collaborative — all the people that I spoke to spoke very highly of him — full of energy and ideas, and ready to learn from his staff."
Handall called Jauregui deeply committed to the Guadalupe community and noted his knowledge and understanding of high school requirements will improve student success as they transition to Righetti.
"Ninety-nine percent of our students are going to go to Righetti, so I want to make sure they know what resources and activities are available so they're ready to go the second school starts," said Jauregui, who launched his teaching career at the Orcutt school.
"But we also want to ensure we're teaching them not only academics, but life skills, so that they can survive and do what they need to do after school."
"Every student can and should succeed," he added. "There is no reason a kid should fall through the cracks. It's our job to ensure that."
Over the next few weeks, Jauregui plans to use one-on-one interactions and classroom visits with Assistant Principal Angela Soares to build relations with the school's nearly 650 students.
Cracking jokes helps break the ice with some, like the eighth grade student with inch-long acrylic nails in Erin VanDeRoovaart's science class.
He'll talk to others about new ideas — ramping up the annual Jog-a-thon with bounce houses at both ends of the track, or hosting lunchtime events every few weeks — to get students excited to come to school.
He'll even hand out a few Bobcat Paws, a new initiative meant to acknowledge students exemplifying Bobcat PRIDE — perseverance, responsibility, integrity, discipline and excellence.
Like support from teachers and his administrative team, having buy-in from students is essential, he said.
"We want them to thrive — in our schools, in our community and in college," Jauregui said. "We want to shake things up and get them excited."