Students waiting to enter Hilltop Elementary School in Glen Burnie on Tuesday morning were greeted by cheery messages on the sidewalk.
"Back to Awesome," one note read.
"We're glad you're here," another said.
Third-grader Daniel Gaitan Jr. said he wants to learn something new. He can't do multiplication just yet.
"But I want to learn it," he said.
From the cheery sidewalks in Glen Burnie to a newsroom-turned-school in Annapolis, Tuesday marked the first day of school for many Anne Arundel County students. Students in first through fifth grades started Tuesday, as well as sixth and ninth grades. The rest of the students will be back Wednesday — sixth- and ninth-graders got the extra school day to adjust to being in middle and high school for the first time.
The school year will also be an adjustment for Hilltop Principal Kelly Thomas, who replaced longtime principal Louise DeJesu following her retirement at the end of the last school year.
"I'm excited to build positive relationships, to support, and make it an exceptional school year," Thomas said.
She hopes to continue building the school's guided reading initiative designed to ensure students are reading on grade level. She wants to focus on helping students organize their writing and understand mathematics.
"The energy's there — the excitement's there," she said. "This is a school full of people who want to be here."
Parents waiting with their children for the start of school said they're interested in learning more about Thomas.
"I'm excited to meet her," Megan Baker said, as she waited with her son, second-grader Kayden Macola, and her niece, Korynn Copes, a first-grader.
Nicole Cabeza was with her daughter, Noiuama Dixon, outside of the school as well. A favorite teacher gave her daughter a hug when she saw her.
"I'm excited to see what the new principal will bring to the table this year," Cabeza said.
This school year is also off to a later-than-usual start, with Gov. Larry Hogan requiring schools to start after Labor Day.
Daniel Gaitan Jr.'s father, Daniel Gaitan, said the extended summer break was helpful.
"That way we have a longer time to get ready for their school. We didn't have to worry about vacation and school at the same time," he said.
Baker said the extra break gave them a chance to go camping one last time before the summer ended.
"I like being able to go back after Labor Day because I don't see the point of having a three-day weekend right when school starts," she said.
While students at Hilltop arrived Tuesday to find a new principal, some Annapolis students found a new school altogether — Monarch Academy Annapolis, a public contract school. The Children's Guild, a Baltimore-based nonprofit, operates the school, which has opened for children in the Annapolis cluster of schools as a way to relieve crowding.
This year 583 students in kindergarten through fifth grade are enrolled at Monarch — the site of the former Capital Gazette building. About 60 percent of those students have been pulled from other crowded Annapolis elementary schools.
Annapolis resident Kelly Costello's two children, a second-grader and a kindergartner, were districted for Hillsmere Elementary School, one of the crowded schools Monarch is meant to relieve. Both are going to Monarch instead this school year.
The school's principal, Sue Myer, and the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme are what drew her to Monarch, Costello said. The Primary Years Programme is considered more inclusive, cross disciplinary and project-based.
"It keeps them busier," she said. "I feel like it's not going to keep them in chairs all day."
Myer said Monarch Academy Annapolis is a Primary Years Programme candidate school — the authorization takes three years to complete.
Costello gave the new school high marks.
"Teachers seem very knowledgeable, everyone's very nice. It already seems to have a community feel to it," she said.
Myer said they worked hard to establish a sense of community by attending parent teacher association meetings and holding meet-and-greets. The school pulls from nine others.
"I think from the get-go it was the idea that coming from so many different schools, we needed to come together as one school, as one community," she said.
Myer said they hope to focus on the school's arts integration program. They wanted to provide both the Primary Years Programme and the arts integration program to prepare students for the Performing and Visual Arts magnet program at Wiley H. Bates Middle School or the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme at Annapolis Middle School.
The school certainly doesn't resemble its former newspaper self.
Colorful statues adorn the entranceway to the school, including a florescent turtle, heron and duck. The school follows a model that supports arts integration, said Frank Kros, executive vice president and chief operating officer for The Children's Guild.
"They're painted in a very nontraditional way specifically to emphasize thinking differently, thinking in alternative ways, and again that wonder and that creativity and that whimsy," Kros said.
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Kros said the school reflects the diversity of the Annapolis community — 40 percent of the students are African-American, 30 percent are Caucasian and 30 percent are Hispanic.
State Superintendent Karen Salmon and Anne Arundel County Public Schools Superintendent George Arlotto toured the school Tuesday.
The newspaper's former loading dock has been converted into a cafeteria, which will include outdoor seating. The entire makeover took about 16 months with construction wrapping up about a month ago.
Touring officials also witnessed a first day rite of passage: students introducing themselves to classmates. In a 10,000-square-foot gym once a warehouse, students in a circle told a gym instructor their names. Back in a classroom, Spanish teacher Jane Truffer was teaching basic vocabulary.
"Hola, yo soy señorita Truffer, y tú? Cómo te llamas?" she said, introducing herself and asking a student her name.
The student said her name is Sophie.
"Sophie, muy bien," she said. "¡Hola, Sophie!"