Eighth grader Taylor Wood high-fives a classmate during the the first day of Carroll County Public Schools at North Carroll Middle School in Gamber on Monday.
Eighth grader Taylor Wood high-fives a classmate during the the first day of Carroll County Public Schools at North Carroll Middle School in Gamber on Monday. (KEN KOONS/STAFF PHOTO / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

GAMBER — Jennifer and Dan McDonald stood back away from the curb where yellow buses were dropping off students for the start of the school year. It was their daughter Katelyn McDonald's first day of kindergarten at Mechanicsville Elementary School, but it seemed like the parents were more antsy than the student.

The couple, with Katelyn's 3-year-old brother Ryan in tow, peered around the school building waiting for their daughter to arrive on the school bus.

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"We're nervous, but we're excited though," Jennifer said.

The couple put Katelyn in the school bus at 8:48 a.m. and then jumped in the car to meet her at the school to ensure she made it safely, Dan said.

A few minutes after 9 a.m., Katelyn hopped off the bus safely and ready for her first day.

On Monday morning, summer break was officially over for more than 26,000 students across Carroll County. Students grabbed their notebooks and bookbags and headed to schools across the district to resume classes.

"[The school] had a really great orientation," Jennifer McDonald said. "She got to get in the bus during orientation and they had a bus tour. Parents got to come in and meet with teachers."

The young couple has been living Westminster for only about a year. But, they said they are really impressed with the area and school system.

"We're new to the area, so it's important to become a part of the community," Dan said.

Last Thursday, parents and students were invited to Mechanicsville for orientation, Principal Steve Wernick said. New students had a separate orientation to invite them and make them feel comfortable, said Wernick.

During orientation, students were able to come in and give signed documents and items for the classroom to the teachers, Wernick said.

"The first day is exciting, but this way there is not that hustle," Wernick said.

Several parents were already in high gear around the school, helping out on the first day.

"We have a great community school with lots of parent involvement," Wernick said.

Jen Hawks, of Finksburg, snapped photos of the students as they jumped off the school bus Monday morning. Hawks' two children attend Mechanicsville Elementary and she volunteers with the school's yearbook.

"I'm really involved; I do activities with the [parent teacher association] and just enjoy getting kids started with new teachers," said Hawks. "We always have a fun run at the beginning of the year."

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Other students were not quite ready to give up their summer vacation.

Aiden Vrataric, 8, rubbed his eyes as he walked up to the school with his mother, Sherri Vrataric.

"I'm excited, but I'm tired," Aiden said a few minutes before homeroom started.

Aiden, a third-grader, said he is most excited to see if any of his friends are in his homeroom and to learn his multiplication tables. He also wants to get outside for recess, his favorite part of the day.

Though he was a little tired, Aiden was nourished. He had bacon and eggs for breakfast and his mother sent him to school with a lunch box full of milk, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and other goodies.

For the upcoming year, Sherri Vrataric said she is most excited to see her son continue to make gains in math and reading.

"I'm really impressed; the school helped a lot with testing and stuff," she said.

As the students filed off the school bus, they were met with smiles and waves from Wernick and the other staff of teachers at the elementary school.

Erin Murphey, a physical education teacher, handed out identification tags to students as they filed off the school buses. The tags were to make sure students got back on the correct bus at the end of the day.

"I'm out there trying to figure out how everyone is getting home at the end of the day," Murphey said. "Arrival and dismissal is crazy."

As students receive their identification bracelets they are counted to make sure the correct number of students return on those buses at dismissal.

"It's also nice to go out and greet the students," Murphey said.

Middle school a different beast

HAMPSTEAD — A group of sixth-grade boys laughed and cracked jokes at the back corner table in the cafeteria during the first lunch period of the day at North Carroll Middle School.

The friends, who have gone to school together for years, said they were not scared when they reached the cafeteria because they had already scoped out their table the previous year.

"The fifth-graders went on a tour of the middle school last year," said Jackson Boothby, 11. "We all went over to this table and decided this is where we were going to sit."

But boys at the table said they were not really sure what they would have done if there were already other students sitting at their tables.

The boys were all dressed in Under Armour and Nike running shirts, basketball shorts and sneakers.

"We're like the athletes of the school," said Jackson, of Manchester.

For Zachary Stranathan, 11, the best part of middle school so far was the added freedom.

"You don't have to walk in a line and you aren't told what to do so much," he said.

While many students were not nervous, some transfer students felt differently.

Becca Stearns was one of the first eighth-graders into enter the cafeteria during the second period of lunch Monday afternoon.

Becca, 13, is a transfer student from Shiloh Middle School and would be the "new girl" this year.

Assistant Principal Sharon Lilly motioned for Becca to come her way. Lilly asked Becca if she was new and welcomed her to the school.

"Do you know anyone?" Lilly asked Becca warmly. Becca shyly shook her head no.

Lilly motioned for Becca to follow her and stopped in front of a table where four giggling eighth-grade girls were sitting.

"Becca is new here, can she sit with you guys?" Lilly asked the girls at the table.

The girls said sure, and welcomed Becca to the table.

The girls at the table were old friends.

Taylor Wood, of Manchester, who sat at the end of the table, high-fived her friends as she sat down.

"I'm glad I get to see my friends again," Taylor said. "It's been a while. It's weird being back here; it's like time flew by."

This summer Taylor said she saw a few of her friends, but spent most of her summer volunteering and doing her service learning hours at the public library and a summer camp.

Being among the older students at the school, Taylor said she feels a lot of pressure as the younger students look up to them. She said she has to set a good example for the younger kids.

Assistant Principal Lilly said her biggest concern, though, is making sure the students are socializing. This school year Carroll students are allowed to bring their own electronic devices, such as smart phones, tablets, laptops and mp3 players to school.

"Having kids have their phones out, it's a balance getting them to socialize and meet people," said Lilly referring many of the new sixth-grade students.

High school brings some confidence

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As the bell rang signifying the end of the school day, students streamed out of every possible exit at Westminster High School, looking for their school buses or walking to their vehicles.

Unlike the comical image of a confused and disoriented freshman awkwardly walking the halls in an attempt to find the next classroom, Matthew Knies, 14, a freshman, walked confidently to the bus that would take him home.

He said the biggest difference between middle school and high school is the size, but other than that it's pretty much the same.

As he walked to his bus, among a crowd of kids doing the same, he said he wants to make sure his freshman year sets him up for a successful graduation with his classmates.

"Most importantly, I want to get good grades and make sure I graduate," Matthew said.

One senior, Piper Milne, 17, listened to her iPod has she walked to the last bus in line. After three years, she said, nothing was unexpected about the day's routine.

"It was just a normal day," Piper said.

In preparation for her senior year and the college application process, Piper said she took the SAT in June and is planning on retaking it. She said she has already applied to colleges, but is excited about the possibility of attending the University of Maryland, College Park, because of her desire to enter the medical field.

"They have a good medical program," she said.

On the first day of her senior year, Piper was firmly looking toward her future beyond high school.

"I'm enjoying my time at Westminster, but I'm looking forward to graduating," she said.

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