Elaine Kolakowski can't put her finger on it, but she knows Johnnycake Elementary School is different this year -- and better.
At first glance, it's the bright red polo shirts, crisp blue pants and smart plaid shorts and jumpers the students are wearing.
But it's also the behavior and attitude of the children in the uniforms. And the attitude of their parents, who chose to make them part of a new structured program called the Johnnycake Academy.
"Our school needed a polish," said Mrs. Kolakowski, in her third year as principal at the Westview-area school in Baltimore County. "Just a little something to be more effective in what we're all about."
Modeled after programs in New York City and Prince George's County, the Johnnycake Academy is part curriculum, part commitment and part attitude adjustment. It also affects only a third of Johnnycake's 500 youngsters this year.
Mrs. Kolakowski had enough "academy" volunteers for one class at each grade level, and although she has a waiting list, there aren't enough children on it for a second academy class in each grade. Youngsters, whose parents applied by mail, were admitted on a first-come, first-served basis.
Although there were no academic requirements for admission, all academy children in grades 3 to 5 study the Great Books program, which was previously limited to students in gifted-and-talented classes. Academy students spend time each week on Latin, too, learning root words that apply to their other language lessons.
The commitment comes in the form of an agreement signed by students, staff and parents.
Students agree to arrive on time, follow the conduct and dress codes, do their homework and take responsibility for their academic progress and behavior.
Parents agree to insist on regular attendance, to provide "an appropriate place and routine time" for children to study, to review and sign progress reports and support the academy rules.
The school staff will "provide a highly disciplined, safe and structured learning environment," enforce the dress and conduct codes, give parents progress reports and "provide an educational experience with high expectations for each student."
The attitude adjustment is tied in with the uniforms, which the youngsters are happy to model for visitors.
School officials said the uniform company and the school work with parents to make sure no one is left out because they can't afford the uniforms.
"They are walking with pride," said Mrs. Kolakowski.
Their attitudes are also linked to expectations.
"The children have been told by their parents, 'You will do what you are told. You will do your homework. We will help you,' " she said. "It takes more than just a teacher to help children be ready for education."
The academy influence seems to be spreading.
"I see more red shirts and blue pants," Mrs. Kolakowski said, as the uniform colors catch on throughout the school.
The good behavior is catching on, too -- more order and less noise.
"Behavior-wise, we've never seen such a turnaround," said John Pettit, parent of a second-grade academy student and past president of the Johnnycake PTA. "Other students are emulating the academy program. We're real enthused with it."
Fifth-grade teacher Kathy Swartz said she can see "a real difference" in her students this year: They're expected to take more responsibility and they're taking it. Teachers say they also have more time to teach, because they don't have to spend as much time on discipline.
Mr. Pettit and Mrs. Kolakowski said that Johnnycake was not an unruly school.
"It had a bad reputation for behavior and for expectations of students," said Mr. Pettit, whose two older children also attended the school.
As much as a third of Johnnycake's students are new each year, said the principal. The enrollment is about 60 percent minority, and 25 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, above the countywide rate of 19 percent.
"I have a variety of degrees of parent involvement . . . the parents are widespread in educational background. They have different degrees of comfort with school," Mrs. Kolakowski said.
But this year's back-to-school night was packed, the principal said, and parent interest seems high, particularly in the academy programs.
Although Mr. Pettit said the panel that devised the academy plan wants to expand it to the whole school, that may not be possible, because children can't be required to wear uniforms and their parents can't be required to sign agreements.
"Two academy classes per grade is not out of the question, though," he said. "We've even had parents from other schools inquiring how they could get into Johnnycake."