Special guests greet Hammond students on first day of school

"I had no idea that I was going to have the opportunity to be lieutenant governor."

Monday morning was filled with lots of greetings as Howard County students headed back for a new academic year.

But at Columbia's Hammond High School, senior class students got a special welcome, in the form of a pep rally from Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, Howard County Public School System Superintendent Renee Foose and Board of Education Chairwoman Janet Siddiqui.

Rutherford, whose three children graduated from Hammond High, lives just a few blocks from the school. He told seniors their future was full of potential – and maybe some big surprises, too.

"When I was a senior in high school, I had no idea that I was going to have the opportunity to be lieutenant governor," he said.

Kittleman, himself a graduate of nearby Atholton High School – "I could have gone to Hammond but Hammond wasn't built yet" when he started high school in 1972 – asked them to consider keeping their talents in Howard County after graduation, even if that meant coming back after a stint away in college.

"Once you finish school, please stay in Howard County," he said. "We need your skill."

The new academic year brings some new and expanded programs to help students build those skills, according to HCPSS spokeswoman Rebecca Amani-Dove.

Howard County's elementary school model, which expands pre-kindergarten programs and features Spanish-language classes and departmentalization at participating schools, is growing this year, with Laurel Woods and Waverly elementary schools adopting the model, according to Amani-Dove.

Students moving up from the model elementary schools will be able to continue their Spanish instruction at Bonnie Branch, Lake Elkhorn, Oakland Mills, Thomas Viaduct and Wilde Lake middle schools, she added.

Also growing this year is the school system's Bring Your Own Device initiative, which encourages students to use their own cellphones, laptops and tablets to do classwork. The program, which started as a pilot at three high schools in 2013 and was implemented in all high schools in the system in 2014, is expanding to all middle schools this year.

And parents, teachers and students will be able to communicate using two new software systems, Synergy and Canvas, which are being introduced as the school year begins.

Back at Hammond High, Principal Marcia Leonard is launching a new initiative this year that will see students working with math and English teachers to create an individualized post-high school plan.

Her goal is for every student who walks out of Hammond High School with a diploma in hand to have a next step, whether it's a college acceptance, enrollment in trade school, a spot in the military or a full-time job.

Monday morning, she told seniors their future was right around the corner. Just a few minutes earlier, nearly every hand in the auditorium had shot up when Superintendent Foose asked if they were ready to graduate.

Lifting up her thumb and forefinger and squinting at the short space in between, Leonard assured them: "your future is this close!"

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