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First day of school in the Baltimore area: 'It’s great to be back'

Frederick Elementary School is one of the first newly built schools in the city. (Baltimore Sun video)

Ebonie Allen woke up her daughters Tuesday morning by singing her special first-day-of-school song.

She kept on chanting — "School's in session, school's in session! Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!" — as she walked the girls to Frederick Elementary in Southwest Baltimore.

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"They had a long summer, a nice vacation, and I'm ready for them to get back into the books," Allen said of Destiny, 10, who is starting the fifth grade, and Georgia, 4, a pre-kindergartner. "Education is first."

Baltimore City schools CEO Sonja Santelises, Mayor Catherine Pugh, Sen. Ben Cardin and other officials were at Frederick to welcome Allen's daughters and hundreds of other students into one of two renovated or rebuilt city schools opening their doors this year.

"It's great to be back," Santelises said.

Nearly all of Maryland's public schools opened Tuesday with an enrollment that is expected to grow to nearly 900,000 students. While school systems in Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard counties added students, Carroll and Harford counties lost students. Baltimore County, which has been gaining about 1,000 students every year, opened with slightly over 113,000 students. The county has built or renovated a new school every year for the past few years. The city also has been renovating and building new schools.

On her first day of school as interim superintendent in Baltimore County, Verletta White, like all superintendents, toured schools with an entourage of administrators and public officials. She seemed to come most alive in the classrooms, sliding back into her former role as teacher, sometimes even taking over instruction for a few minutes to encourage, chide and console students.

She shared tips on wriggling free loose teeth with second-graders, helped a high school class with a science project and discussed her love of reading with them. In a ninth-grade English class at Woodlawn High School — her alma mater — White asked students what their favorite book had been growing up, and challenged them to read something for fun.

"It doesn't matter what level. I want to make sure that we are on this road to literacy," she said.

White spent an hour at the latest school to open in her district — Relay Elementary School in the southwestern portion of the county.

As students and parents poured into the brightly colored building with large open spaces, new technology and rooftop gardens, the old school just feet away was being torn down.

Relay will continue to undergo transition in the days ahead. A difficult redistricting process rezoned some nearby neighborhoods with overcrowded schools and sent 100 new students to Relay.

PTA President Angela Anderson said the association and school leaders held ice cream socials and other summer events to help welcome the new students.

At Frederick Elementary, students walked into a building that has had about $30 million worth of renovations and additions. It was one of two city schools to reopen under a $1 billion initiative, known as the 21st Century plan, to replace the district's aging institutions.

Frederick is now equipped with a media center, technology makerspace, modern science lab and other amenities. In one fifth-grade classroom, a teacher led her students in yoga and meditation before starting the day. Cardin stood in the corner of the darkened room, stretched his hands upward and took deep breaths along with the students.

"I feel so much better now," he said as he walked out.

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As Pugh toured the building, she paused to ask students if they like their new school, which is opening as a charter school this year. Some students smiled shyly and offered a thumbs-up. Others shouted out "Yes!"

Part of the school building plan required closing underused buildings and sending students to other schools. On Tuesday, some students who used to attend Samuel F. B. Morse also poured through Frederick's doors.

Ladonja Hargrove came to Frederick to drop off her two grandchildren for their first day. Hargrove's children had attended Morse, and she had hoped to send her grandchildren there too.

"Things happen, and you have to accept change," Hargrove said. "And this is good change. The school is nice and clean and will be a fresh start."

City officials also visited Mary E. Rodman Elementary, one of three institutions working with Commodore John Rodgers Elementary/Middle School in a partnership to turn around some of the city's failing schools. The group of four schools opened a week earlier.

Just a week in at Rodman, Santelises said, "the environment is already palpably different."

The final stop of the city's first-day-of-school tour was Excel Academy in West Baltimore. As Pugh and Santelises peeked into classrooms at the alternative high school, one student shouted out, "Thanks for the free college!" Pugh recently announced a proposal to provide community college tuition for public high school graduates in the city, starting with the Class of 2018.

One ninth-grader, apparently overcome with emotion at the sight of the mayor in her classroom, wiped her eyes and hugged Pugh.

Excel students lost five classmates to gun violence last year. Another student, 19-year-old Rashad Parks, was killed over the summer. The administration had additional social workers and school psychologists on hand to help students work through their grief on the first day back.

Coming to Excel on the first day was a way to support the community and communicate that "all of our young people in Baltimore City matter," Santelises said.

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