Nearly four months ago, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was met with angst and questions from fourth-graders at Gilmor Elementary School on the day of Freddie Gray's funeral.
Monday, she was met with hugs and squeals from beret-clad girls who recognized her from TV.
Rawlings-Blake was among city leaders who welcomed Baltimore students back to school by visiting West Baltimore schools affected by the unrest that unfolded after Gray's death in April. Gray, 25, suffered a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody.
"This community has been through a lot," Rawlings-Blake said. "I wanted to be here on the first day back to say congratulations for everyone making it to school on time, ready to learn, and that I'm encouraged that this will be the best school year ever."
Gilmor Elementary is the feeder school for the Gilmor Homes housing project, where Gray was arrested on April 12 and loaded into a police transport van. It is also the school where Rawlings-Blake stopped before attending Gray's funeral on April 27, hours before the city erupted in rioting and looting.
The mayor said it was important to return to Gilmor, which also underwent a leadership change this year. Curtis Durham, Gilmor's new principal, said this year he's focused on academics.
"We're looking to become the true Gilmor family that we know we are," Durham said.
City officials visited a number of schools that had a connection to Gray or to the unrest.
City schools CEO Gregory Thornton started the day by greeting students at Matthew A. Henson Elementary, and was joined by the mayor in visiting Carver Vocational-Technical High School and Baltimore International Academy.
Gray attended Henson and Carver.
School officials said Thornton wanted to highlight the importance of attendance for the district of about 85,000 students and to spotlight neighborhood schools.
Thornton walked with students to Henson and rang a school bell before visiting classes. In Margaret Powell's fifth-grade class, he rallied students in a cheer about their education, having them shout their graduation year: "2023."
"See you on the stage," he said, referring to their future commencement.
According to school system documents, Gray started at Henson in fifth grade.
Principal David Guzman said Gray visited a former teacher at the school just three weeks before his arrest. Guzman, who wasn't principal when Gray attended, said it was "surreal" and "sobering" to learn that he had been a student there. The educator said it reinforced his commitment to students.
Henson was among West Baltimore schools the community rallied around amid the unrest. Members of the Baltimore Ravens brought food to the school, and organizations such as the United Way offered support.
A small sign at the school's entrance reads: "We are not thugs, We are not criminals, We are scholars, we are the future, We are Baltimore."
Guzman, starting his fourth year at Henson, said he hopes to draw from his students' resilience to maintain the school's high academic performance and its spirit.
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For the past few years, the small neighborhood school — where more than 95 percent of students qualify for free-and-reduced price meals — has outperformed the city's average on standardized tests.
"I set the tone with high expectations, but our teachers do the work day in and day out," Guzman said. "Last year, much like the last three years, there was a sense of pride in our school, and this year I want to continue that to make us one of the upper echelon of schools in the city."
Fifth-grader Ty' Jae Backus was still a little unsure about what the new school year would bring. "I'm excited, but I gotta find out about what," she said.
Shania Jackson, another fifth-grader, said she was excited to "meet new people and new teachers."
At Carver, which Gray attended until 10th grade, student Deamonte Evans — himself a 10th-grader — said he plans to focus on better grades this year. But he said he and his classmates remain concerned about issues Gray's death raised for the city's youth.
"It's still on people's minds," he said.