HARTFORD, Conn. (WTNH) — It was back to school for students in Hartford Tuesday morning. The district still struggles to find enough teachers, but the first day of school was about encouraging students to have a good time and stay in school.

If the students at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School were not smiling before they got to school, they sure were after they got there. Hartford schools kicked off their first day with help from Calling All Brothers, a group of successful men who want to show kids what they can become by staying in school.

“We want to get them motivated to keep them strong, positive, and encouraged because this will affect other areas of their life,” explained Daryl K. Roberts, a former Hartford police chief and current Hartford Schools’ security director. “It’s not just about school. It’s about getting ready for life.”

Incoming eighth grader Rushawn Lewis kept up with his reading skills this summer.

“I have read one of my favorite books,” Lewis said. “One of my favorite franchises, actually. Five Nights at Freddy’s.”

Top officials hope the energy here in Hartford is contagious.

“I hope any of these kids who are hesitant about going back to school are saying, ‘Look, these kids at Martin Luther King, they’re really happy to be back. Look at the energy. Look at the passion. I’m going to get off the couch. I’m going to go back to school, too,'” Gov. Ned Lamont (D-Connecticut) said.

As important as it is to get the students excited for the school year, it is equally important to get the teachers excited because finding enough teachers has been a real challenge since the pandemic. Hartford schools dealt with a 12% teacher vacancy rate a year ago. This year, it’s down to 8%.

“Nonetheless, we still have to figure out how it is we are going to cover in those areas,” Hartford Schools Superintendent Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriguez said. “We have our substitutes. We have our teachers who are supporting in their schools.”

The real good news is how normal things feel after years of recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The one trend that I’m hearing across from our educators and our families is: It feels more stable,” Torres said. “And we love that.”

That may be the real reason so many Hartford schoolchildren are smiling.