Baltimore schools CEO Sonja Santelises kicked off the new school year on Monday by having breakfast with students at John Eager Howard Elementary School, where children were welcomed back by school staff, political leaders and even African drummers.
"I love the first day of school," Santelises said. "It always shows the potential of the system."
Schools also opened Monday in Howard and Carroll counties. With a new superintendent at the helm in Baltimore, however, the pomp of the annual "first-day tour" had a different feel.
"It's a reminder that we have to start with what kids bring to the classroom, which, yes, includes challenges," Santelises said.
"But this," she said, motioning toward a room of bouncing prekindergartners in crisp new uniforms, cartoon character-themed backpacks, fresh haircuts and beaded braids. "This is what they bring, too. We have to match that excitement with opportunity."
School officials said they chose John Eager Howard as the starting point of the tour because it represents a difficult but promising undertaking. The school is one of 14 in the city to start the year in shared or new space as the district's $1 billion plan to rebuild and renovate school buildings goes into high gear.
John Eager Howard merged with Westside Elementary School this year. Both schools are scheduled to move into a newly renovated building next year. The merger added an extra layer of uncertainty for parents on the first day of classes, as families from both communities converged on the building.
The merger doubled the student population to more than 400. Principal Tamara Hanson said she considered it a perfect distraction from the anxiety that comes with combining two distinct schools and student bodies.
"Any time you bring any two things together, there's going to be reservations," she said. "But we're excited to bring what's great about John Eager Howard to this relationship."
Hanson said she would focus this year on building positive relationships. Over the summer, 25 students from each school came together to form a student ambassador group to help that mission.
"I just keep reminding everyone [to] focus on the children," Hanson said.
Kindergartner Dyumani Thompson already knows what she wants to focus on this year.
"I'm excited that I'm going to learn," she said. "I want to build things."
Parents expressed cautious optimism about the merger.
Saprina Kennedy's daughter attended Westside last year. When she walked her daughter to her fifth-grade classroom, she said, she was disheartened to see students segregated by school.
She was also disappointed that her daughter's class had a substitute teacher, while the class of mostly John Eager Howard fifth-graders had their permanent teacher.
"They said they were coming together, and they're not together," Kennedy said. "I thought it was going to bring more function and unity to the school, so that don't make sense."
Iona Kess, whose granddaughter attended John Eager Howard last year, said she was happy that the temporary building was bigger and brighter.
"I just hope they keep the same programs, and keep the same focus," Kess said. "I have an open mind, but I'll be watching."
Santelises also visited Lillie May Carroll Jackson School, a charter school for girls that focuses on exploratory learning, to highlight the district's burgeoning portfolio of charter schools, and Mergenthaler Vocation-Technical High School, which has career and technology education programs.
Among those who joined Santelises was state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, the Democratic nominee for mayor. She said she enjoyed watching the city come together to help prepare students for the first day of school.
"There should not be a child in the city who doesn't have what they need," Pugh said. "And to see this transition is very exciting.
"I'm excited for their futures."