Rachel Pugh was just two hours into the first day of 11th grade and she already had an essay assignment. And she was excited about it.
Rachel, 16, is enrolled in Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy’s Advanced Placement English class. Last year, the West Baltimore high school was among the nine in the city that didn’t offer a single AP course. But as part of a district-wide initiative to expand students’ access to more challenging material, the school system mandated that every school teach at least one AP class during the new school year.
In Kristian Garrett’s Room 301, Rachel and other students cracked open copies of “The Great Gatsby” and wrote short-answer responses that compared characters from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel with themes from Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror” poem.
Rachel says this class, with its harder texts and potential for her to earn college credit, will give her a leg up in life.
“It will give me more of a challenge,” she said.
All across Maryland Tuesday, yellow buses zoomed, tearful parents waved and hundreds of thousands of students walked into new classrooms for the first day of school. Educators statewide hope the fresh start brings new opportunities to expand students minds and prepare them for the colleges and careers.
Baltimore City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises toured Vivien T. Thomas and said she was heartened to see students like Rachel “already engaged” in rigorous classwork.
“The first day is about promise,” Santelises said.
Tuesday also brought some new beginnings. Two massively renovated and rebuilt school buildings opened under the 21st Century Schools programs, a billion dollar initiative to modernize the city’s aging education infrastructure.
A new public charter school, Baltimore International Academy West, also opened in the city. It’s a replication of the original BIA, which teaches students Spanish, French, Chinese, Arabic or Russian through language immersion.
Baltimore County opened a new charter school Tuesday as well — the only one in the district. Watershed Public Charter School in Woodlawn is designed to get children outside into an environment of streams, woods and fields.
One of the biggest differences between Watershed and a traditional school is the amount of time its students will spend outside, school leaders said.
Kindergartners will care for the school chickens that live in a coop on school grounds, which also feature a garden of squash, watermelon, corn and other crops. There are tables nearby for outdoor classes. And a “mud kitchen” encourages students to get dirty.
About 80 students are on a waitlist for the school, which is approved for 176 students and now serves children in kindergarten through third grade, said the school’s executive director, Jessie Lehson. The plan is to eventually serve up to eighth grade, with a new grade added each year.
The school on Dogwood Road operates in the building that once housed John Paul Regional School, a Catholic school that shut down in 2017.
Inside on Tuesday, Principal Janetta Jayman high-fived students as they made their way through the halls. The kids walked along hallway floors that were decorated to represent a watershed — blue tape connected each classroom, the tributaries, to a thicker, longer piece of tape symbolizing a stream down the middle of the hall.
Second-grade teacher Jason Chang was new just like everyone else at Watershed. A recent graduate of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, this will be Chang’s first year teaching.
“Most of the students don’t know each other,” Chang said. “So it’s a really great new start for everything … There aren’t any cliques and things like that.”
Baltimore County schools’ new superintendent Darryl Williams toured other schools Tuesday with County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.
“The staff members have been so welcoming,” said Williams, who came to the school system from Montgomery County this summer.
At the end of a visit to Woodlawn Middle School, Williams said he loves to see students interacting with their friends and collaborating in the classroom.
“For me that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “Learning happening in every class, in every school, every day.”
While it was a largely celebratory day, some of the city’s intractable problems still touched Baltimore schools as they tried to welcome students back.
About 12 hours before students returned to Northwood Elementary School, three men were shot, one fatally, behind the building.
Police cleaned up the scene quickly, and no crime scene tape or other evidence was visible Tuesday morning. Still, Kindra Snowden didn’t want to take any chances of ruining her daughter’s first day so she drove the 7-year-old girl on a different route that wouldn’t pass the spot the shooting took place.
“I didn’t want that to be the first thing the children would see,” Snowden, 38, said.
The district sent crisis counselors to the school Tuesday in case students needed help processing the incident.
Snowden said she wouldn’t allow the violence to taint little Ar’nia’s first day of second grade. They took lots of pictures of the little girl posing with her new unicorn and rainbow backpack.
The family stayed focused on how excited Ar’nia is about learning to be a better speller.