Carmen V. Russo leaned down between two Calverton Middle School pupils getting reading help in summer school.
"How many books are you going to read this summer?" Baltimore's new schools chief asked Tierra Patterson, 11, who was busy with a book called "Revolting Rhymes."
Patterson, who will start seventh grade this year, shrugged.
"You're not sure?" Russo asked. "I bet you could read one a week if you tried."
Facing high expectations herself, Russo made her first visit to some of the city's classrooms yesterday, touring three schools on her third day as head of the 103,000-student school system.
The former associate superintendent from Broward County, Fla., met principals, students and teachers, inquiring about everything from computer technology to textbooks to the quality of cafeteria food.
"I've been asking a lot of questions, and I think people expect that, and they've been very forthcoming," said Russo, 64, who arrived Wednesday for her first day at the school administration headquarters on East North Avenue.
Russo began yesterday at Southwestern High School, a fitting place to start given her track record of turning around troubled high schools in New York City.
High school reform is expected to be one of Russo's signature efforts in Baltimore, where many students lag behind the rest of the state and a significant number don't graduate.
Choosing a zoned high school was deliberate: Those schools are larger and traditionally lower-performing than their citywide counterparts.
Before the morning was over, Russo also toured Calverton Middle on the west side and Coldstream Park Elementary on the east side.
Russo - whose personal style is much different from that of her predecessor, Robert Booker - joins the school system at a critical time in its push for academic reform.
And, by default, she inherits several problems concerning school management and financial accountability as well as the possibility of closing some schools.
Almost immediately, Russo will have to sift through two audits: one of a technology contract plagued by multimillion-dollar overruns and the other of an energy contract awarded without bids or the approval of the school board.
She will have to replace the chief financial officer, Roger Reese, who resigned last month after reports that he oversaw the financing of the energy contract.
She will also have to decide whether to keep business officer Wilbur C. Giles Jr., who returned this week from a four-week suspension after the school board voted to restructure his job to exclude contracting duties.
Russo, who spent much of her first two days in meetings getting briefed on the issues, said she is awaiting the energy contract audit before making a recommendation to the board on Giles' fate.
"I want a decision to be based on some facts and a discussion of some of the issues," she said.
Russo is also expected to receive a report containing recommendations on which of the city's 184 schools should be shut down.
Booker said this year that at least eight schools might have to be closed because of shrinking enrollment.
At Southwestern, Principal Cecil Robinson took Russo from classroom to classroom, introducing her as the "boss of all bosses" to some of the more than 1,000 summer school students.
In one hallway, she ran into second-year math teacher Jerry Boland, who coaches the debate team.
She enthusiastically received the news that the team's recent trip to Emory University in Atlanta for a competition yielded three medals.
Minnie Crosby, head of Southwestern's science department, showed Russo one of the school's new science labs.
"Now, do you have enough science equipment to go with it on these nice new counters?" Russo asked.
Crosby said teachers lack even the basics, including chemicals for science experiments - and chairs.
"We have these beautiful labs but no furniture," she said.
Russo asked the principal to pass on accolades to his staff members who have been cleaning the premises in preparation for the start of school in September.
"To your credit, the building looks wonderful," she said. "The bulletin boards look great.
"But that's how it should look all the time. It makes children proud, I think, when they see their work displayed."
Russo, who has a four-year contract worth $192,000 a year plus bonuses for improved student performance and management, inspected a considerably smaller summer program at Calverton.
"There's so much potential in this school," said Principal Karl E. Perry, who joined the school in February from Polytechnic Institute, where he was an assistant principal.
Perry explained how the school is getting a "new look" - with doorways and trim painted in the school colors, black and gold - and how enclosing the fire alarms has cut down on disruptive student pranks.
"Before I arrived, there were three false alarms per day," he told Russo.
Russo visited one classroom where pupils were receiving functional math instruction.
They were in the middle of a learning game called "Total Recall," where correct answers to questions about the definition of "volume" or "perimeter" earned them play money to be accumulated and "spent" at the end of the summer session.
In her second interview with the school board search committee, Russo said the greatest challenge she expected to face as chief executive officer of the school system would be improving student achievement.
She described herself as a "very practical" and "hands-on" person who is involved "on a day-to-day basis on the bottom line and making sure that we are making those incremental gains to get where we need to go."
"I'm going to be very accessible," Russo said yesterday. "I want to hear what [students' and teachers'] issues are."
Sun staff writer Ann Lolordo contributed to this article.