Six weeks into his role as superintendent, Emilio Handall joined the more than 1,200 Guadalupe Union School District students heading back to school.

A more than 20-year career as an aide, teacher and administrator for schools and districts across Santa Barbara County hasn't dulled the splendor of back to school for Handall, who called it one of the most energizing moments of the year.

Standing near the gates of Kermit McKenzie Intermediate School on a misty Thursday morning, the new superintendent joined Principal Gabe Solorio in greeting students as they filed onto campus for the first day of the new school year. 

"It's still exciting," said Handall, gliding between groups of students recounting their summer troubles, travels and triumphs before the first bell whisked them to class. "Like Forrest Gump said, every year 'is like a box of chocolates.' Students change over time — their personalities and academic [performance] grows over time. A certain group of students that may be a challenge one year could blossom the next."

Rather than returning to Mary Buren Elementary as the oldest students on campus, district fifth-graders started their year in a new building on a new campus. Though minor painting and touch-ups of the long-awaited eight-classroom building are ongoing, fifth-grade students and teachers were able to occupy the new complex Thursday. 

Proposed after voters approved Measures M and N in November 2016, the building provides room for the district to grow and accommodate projected increases in student population from the ongoing construction of the Pasadera housing development. 

"I knew how important it was to the community to get this building up," Handall said. "We're very happy with the final product. We were anxiety-ridden throughout the process but are glad to have students in classrooms on the first day."

Though Handall may be the most prominent new face in the district, he is not the only one. Over the summer, the district hired Gina Branum as its inaugural assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

"She brings a tremendous amount of experience, knowledge and passion for what we're trying to accomplish here," Handall said.

Longtime teacher and lifelong Guadalupe resident Maria Gonzalez was named Mary Buren Elementary's interim principal.

"We thought it was a natural move to put her in there," Handall said of Gonzalez's appointment. Gonzalez will remain in the position until the district conducts a larger search for a permanent replacement.

Seated at a table near the back of the school, seventh-grade student Andy Cornejo spent his morning telling friends about his summer trip to King's Canyon National Park.

"Bigger and more beautiful" than the Santa Ynez Mountains, Cornejo said he enjoyed his time swimming in the Sierra Nevada.

But now that school is in session — and early morning starts will become more routine — Cornejo said he hopes to use the school year to catch up with old friends (he only saw them three times over summer), make new ones and succeed in his classes.

"My goal is to always get better grades than last year," he said.

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Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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