Breaking from the tradition of beginning the school year with the city's Blue Ribbon recipients and highest performers, Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso personally welcomed back students and staff who will take part in radical transformations at schools that have struggled with academics.
Alonso said he decided to visit schools this year that have "all of the ingredients to be a great school, but their outcomes haven't shown it."
It was a decision in line with the unusual start to the school year, with 77,000 students returning from summer vacation two days late — the first time in recent memory that opening day has been delayed — because of power outages caused by Hurricane Irene. All but 20 city schools opened Wednesday, and nine will remain closed Thursday.
"I do feel a sense of elation about being here today, because this is where we're supposed to be — the kids need to be in school," said Alonso, whose excitement rivaled the pre-kindergartners who hugged their friends and bopped around the blacktop at Cherry Hill Elementary/Middle School early Wednesday. "I feel blessed, compared to other places that are still recovering, that we are able to open for our kids."
Alonso said he did not want students to miss any more instruction time in the wake of two natural disasters in five days, and the approaching Baltimore Grand Prix — which will force six schools to open with one-hour delays Friday — and Labor Day holiday. He said the system has five days built into its calendar that could be used to make up the lost time, and he will determine how to allocate them later in the year.
In Baltimore County, which also welcomed back students Wednesday, 16 schools will remain closed Thursday because of lack of power. Officials said the school year opened without incident, though roughly 47 roads and intersections still had problems. The school system sent "chasers" with school buses to help maneuver through any debris that could pose obstacles for bus transportation.
"Everything went off without a hitch, considering what we've been through in the last week," said Charles Herndon, spokesman for Baltimore County schools. "I don't know if too many people can remember a more disruptive way to start the school year, but everyone was in such high spirits, such a good mood, so resilient."
The theme for Baltimore City this year is "Transforming the Classroom," with a focus on changing the lackluster and antiquated academic curriculum. In that vein, Alonso said, "we should be highlighting today where the work really is to move the system forward."
The schools chief kicked off his annual tour at Cherry Hill, a school that after more than a decade of failure was identified for turnaround efforts under the operation of Friendship Public Charter Schools.
Janika Wynn, parent of a fifth-grader and pre-kindergartner at Cherry Hill, said she was just as eager about the new school year as her students. "I wanted to see the major changes that they made for this year," Wynn said.
"I wanted to see all of my old friends and my new teacher," Wynn's daughter, Anyriah Carter, chimed in.
Alonso also visited Benjamin Franklin High School at Masonville Cove, which underwent an internal overhaul of curriculum and staff and has had its facilities updated; Forest Park High School, which represented the challenges facing the city's comprehensive, neighborhood high schools; and The Midtown Academy, one of the first charter schools in the district.
Under Friendship, Cherry Hill has trained its leadership team at Harvard University, undergone facility renovations and doubled up on teachers in some classrooms in an urban teaching residency program. Its new curriculum focuses on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Friendship also runs three other schools in the city.
"We're very excited about this year because it's an entirely different environment," said Barbara Vi, a fifth-grade teacher at Cherry Hill. "Everyone who's here wants to be here. And we had a few extra days to get even more prepared. So we're ready. We're pumped."
The visit to Forest Park High School — one of several historic high schools in the city that has seen declines in enrollment, academics and climate in recent years — was also of significance, Alonso said.
Alonso appointed Kevin Brooks, who had led the district's Success Academy, a school for former dropouts located in city schools headquarters, as Forest Park's new principal as a first step in its transformation. He said during his visit, he could see the different response from students at the school, who also donned a school uniform for the first time in recent history.
"We want to really show that it can work, because these schools are anchors in this city," said Brooks, whose plan is to focus on academics, athletics and arts.
He said the theme for the new year and the new administration is "Bringing Back the Glory."