Havre de Grace Elementary School pupils riding school bus No. 103 had some atypical companions while traveling to school Monday on their first day of the 2013-2014 school year: top county and Harford County Public Schools officials.
Officials offered greetings such as "Good morning," "Hi," and "It's like a surprise party!" to the children as they boarded.
Most of the pupils clustered in the back and traded jokes and compared snacks in their school lunches.
Other lucky children shared seats with county and school officials who talked with them about their feelings on the new school year.
"Because they want to see the new kids," second grader Jordan Wagner said when asked his thoughts on sharing the bus with the adults.
"I love school," said Jordan, who sat with two of his friends toward the rear of the bus. He proudly announced "Ms. Spilman" is his teacher and said his favorite part of school is "when we go play outside."
The grown-ups riding the bus, which was driven by Carol Ranieri, included Interim Superintendent Barbara Canavan, Harford County Executive David Craig, Board of Education President Nancy Reynolds and school board member Alysson Krchnavy, and 2013 Harford County Teacher of the Year Kristin Schaub, a teacher at Havre de Grace.
Central office administrators Susan Brown, acting executive director of curriculum and assessment, Angela Morton, executive director of elementary school performance, Laurie Namey, supervisor of equity and cultural proficiency, and Phil Snyder, supervisor of accountability, were also on the bus.
Ranieri pulled up in front of the school after completing her route, and Patrick Ernst, a math coach, jumped on wearing Mickey Mouse ears on his head.
"Ladies and gentlemen, have a great day," Ernst exclaimed. "We have a party starting!"
The children on bus 103 and other students, along with their parents who were walking them in, were treated to the sights and sounds of school staff cheering and waving maracas, and Assistant Principal Ron Wooden with a megaphone welcoming them as party music played in the background.
Principal Renee Villareal hugged children as they came through the school lobby, and she and all other school staff were wearing plastic Mickey Mouse ears.
Havre de Grace administrators also took the school and county leaders on a tour of the school after the bus ride.
'Imagine, innovate and inspire'
Wooden and Villareal explained that the Mickey Mouse ears reflected this year's theme for Havre de Grace Elementary: "Imagine, innovate and inspire."
Villareal said "Walt Disney popped up in every one of those words" when she and Wooden conducted searches on the Internet regarding the "Imagine, innovate and inspire" theme.
"As a result, we took the Mickey Mouse ears as our mantra," she said.
The mouse ears could be seen on the heads of teachers, office staff and custodians Monday.
"We want kids to feel wowed every time they walk in our building," Villareal said.
Wooden said children at Havre de Grace Elementary are welcomed in the same manner each day, a method of "energizing them, getting them ready to learn."
"It's a way to get them excited about being in school," he explained.
Wooden said the atmosphere is very different at the end of the school day, known as "silent dismissal," a time when pupils reflect on the day.
Villareal said the silent dismissal "starts the school bus ride safely."
"We come in loud and rowdy to get them excited, but our kids leave very quiet," Wooden said.
About 400 children in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade started school at Havre de Grace Elementary Monday, along with thousands of their counterparts in elementary, middle and high schools across Harford County.
Speaking outside the school following the bus ride and welcoming ceremony, Craig, a Havre de Grace native who attended the elementary school, reflected on taking the bus to school Monday when he grew up walking to elementary school and later riding his bicycle to Havre de Grace High School.
"Now I have two grandchildren who walk that same half a block to get here," he said.
The county executive and members of the Harford County Council and school board have spent the summer debating who is responsible for the budget issues faced by the school system going into the current year.
Board members approved measures such as cutting staff, implementing fees for sports and extracurricular activities and consolidating bus routes, blaming Craig and the council for not giving them enough money.
Canavan left Havre de Grace Monday to attend a meeting. In a statement issued through her spokesperson later, the superintendent said: "We are grateful to the students and staff of HdGES for allowing us to share in the excitement on this first day of school and for serving as a prime example of the amazing opportunities that happen for all Harford County Public Schools students each day."
Craig noted he and Canavan "get along very well," and said he expects smoother sailing now that the school year is under way.
Craig, a former Harford County teacher and school administrator, was an assistant principal when Canavan was principal of Southampton Middle School in Bel Air.
"It was a lot of fun today," he said of the bus ride.