At the front door of a home near Holabird Academy in Southeast Baltimore, new city schools CEO Gregory Thornton and the Baltimore Oriole Bird mascot greeted a gaggle of young children with fresh uniforms and backpacks, all ready for the first day of school.
Thornton high-fived the children, his enthusiasm matching that of the grade-schoolers. He gestured toward the Oriole Bird. "Do you know that he's my friend?"
"Oriole Bird your friend?" a tiny girl asked incredulously. Inside, a woman shrieked with laughter as the girl cautiously shook the mascot's hand.
"Gimme five, ma'am," said Thornton, who was also vigorously shaking a hand bell. "Welcome to a new school year."
Students in Baltimore City, Howard, Harford and Carroll counties began school Monday, while Baltimore County will open Wednesday and Anne Arundel County staggers its start day over Monday and Tuesday. Teachers and administrators returned to what will be the second year of the Common Core and the first year of new state tests aligned with the reform. Students in Baltimore may see more long-term substitutes, as the city school system needed to hire more than 100 teachers to fill vacancies as of last week.
But on Monday morning, the air was charged with the excitement of the first day of school. Thornton knocked on doors in the O'Donnell Heights community and gathered dozens of children to walk to nearby Holabird Academy, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school that has a "Where are you going to college?" banner hanging over its entrance. It was the first day of school for Thornton, too — the former Milwaukee Public Schools superintendent has only been on the job for a couple of months.
At the school, some children reunited with friends they hadn't seen since the spring. Some parents came inside to help younger children find their classrooms. A few kindergartners cried at the impending separation from their parents, with one boy clinging to his father for long moments, sobbing.
Keona Trice's 8-year-old daughter, Ayonah, was starting the fourth grade. The girl gave her mother one last hug outside the school before a friend grabbed her hand and pulled her away. "Hurry up, girl!" the friend urged Ayonah.
"She's very excited," Trice said. "I don't think she got no sleep last night."
Visitors to Holabird Academy included Maryland state Superintendent of Schools Lillian M. Lowery and Gov. Martin O'Malley, who was introduced to children by a teacher as "like a principal for the whole state."
"You can tell as you walk the halls, as you talk to the teachers, veteran and new, that the Baltimore City public school system expects to improve now every year," O'Malley said. "That's a big shift from 10 years ago."
Lowery said school systems in the state would be examining this year a number of areas related to school safety: mental health, bullying and ensuring teachers can spot warning signs. She also said teachers have spent the summer in professional development workshops to get them accustomed to the Common Core and new state tests.
"We're comfortable that they will feel a little more at ease about the new standards," Lowery said. "And for the first time with the new standards we will have an aligned assessment, and we will be around the state talking to people about what that means because they're more rigorous assessments."
In Howard County, Superintendent Renee A. Foose and other county leaders visited several schools on the first day, but their back-to-school tour in fact began Sunday, during the opening and ribbon-cutting of Thomas Viaduct Middle School in Hanover. It marked the second time in as many years that Howard County has opened a new school in its eastern corridor; Ducketts Lane Elementary in Elkridge opened last year.
On Monday, the group visited Pointers Run Elementary School in Clarksville, which will be the first school in the county to participate in food scrap recycling and composting. County officials said that households in certain areas already participate in curbside food scrap collection, which they say reduces household trash and greenhouse gases.
School and county leaders also visited Wilde Lake Middle School in Columbia, which will be replaced with a new facility. Construction will begin next year, school officials said. Wilde Lake Middle will be the first net-zero energy school in the state of Maryland, generating as much energy as it uses during the school year, officials said.
The group completed their back-to-school tour at Bryant Woods Elementary School in Columbia, one of several schools that will implement the district's Elementary School Model. School officials announced the new elementary school model in the spring; it's intended to close achievement gaps and foster physical, social and emotional development.
Foose, who is in her third year at the helm, said that in comparing the start of this year to previous years, "There's a lot more energy here, a lot more excitement. Teachers are much more comfortable with the Common Core implementation at our elementary schools. Staffs are excited about the Elementary School Model we're putting in place."
Howard County Executive Ken Ulman lauded the Elementary School Model's foreign languages and prekindergarten components.
Said Ulman, "Studies are so clear that when you have pre-K the way you enter kindergarten ready to learn is just dramatically improved. And I had to say to the principal, 'Did these kids get any Spanish last year?' because I couldn't believe this was the first day and how many of them were catching on after one day."
School officials said that this year's enrollment is expected to exceed 53,400 students, an increase of more than 2,000 over last year. Officials said the district hired 341 new teachers this summer to accommodate enrollment growth; the district now has 4,770 throughout its 77 schools.
This school year, Carroll County students are allowed to bring their own electronic devices, such as smartphones, tablets, laptops and MP3 players, to school. North Carroll Middle School Assistant Principal Sharon Lilly said her biggest concern is making sure the students are socializing. "Having kids have their phones out, it's a balance getting them to socialize and meet people," Lilly said.
In Harford County, a select group of North Bend Elementary School students got to ride the bus to school with schools Superintendent Barbara Canavan and County Executive David Craig. The bus was decorated with streamers in a New Year's theme, and the children received noisemakers as they boarded. The children were encouraged to blow on their noisemakers, since they will not get another opportunity to make noise on the bus.
In Anne Arundel, students got to see the new Annapolis Elementary on Monday, with the school officially opening Tuesday. The school was expanded from 37,500 to 69,500 square feet, at a cost of nearly $29 million. Students at seven other schools — including Annapolis High and Severn River Middle — will start school Tuesday, one day later than other students, because of construction.
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Joe Burris, Krishana Davis, David Anderson and Kelcie Pegher contributed to this article.