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Change is the rule in school systems


No more sleeping late, no more afternoons of swimming and ice cream, no more driving your brother crazy.

With the unofficial end of summer today, 345,000 students in the city, Baltimore County and Harford County return to school tomorrow.

Whether they go back to a school next to a cornfield or one with a concrete yard, children will enter schools that face many of the same issues.

A renewed emphasis on phonics-based reading instruction in Baltimore and Baltimore County brought increases in spring scores on national, standardized tests. In the city, those gains were considered significant progress; in the county, the scores were steady gains.

Both jurisdictions have new leaders - Joe A. Hairston in the county and Carmen V. Russo in the city - who will face issues of crowding in some schools and empty desks in others.

The city is expected to announce a plan this month to close schools, perhaps as many as eight in the next three years, while the county opens a new school this year and renovates others.

In Harford, county school board member Thomas D. Hess said one of the biggest issues faced by the school system is the county's growth and classroom size.

"We have to try to stay even and ahead," he said. "We've been successful, but it's a struggle."

The quality of secondary schools is a growing concern in the city and the counties as they face tougher high school assessments.

"I am very excited about my first year," Russo said, adding that one of her priorities will be to begin the reform of struggling middle and high schools.

"The level of achievement, particularly at our zoned high schools, is not where we think it should be."

Those zoned or neighborhood high schools have high dropout rates, low attendance and low achievement.

One school, Lake Clifton/Eastern High School, has gone through a restructuring that creates a school within a school and a focus on making students better readers.

Hairston will be looking at one of his troubled high schools - Woodlawn. Hairston ordered an audit of the school this summer after a study by county and state educators reported that the hallways were dirty and chaotic, teacher morale was low and leadership was lacking.

The audit, which will take a close look inside the classrooms, is expected to take a few months, said county schools spokesman Charles A. Herndon.

Woodlawn Principal Lynette Woodley said she is planning a "good, productive school year" for students.

At the new Dogwood Elementary School, a 500-pupil facility built to relieve crowding in Woodlawn-area elementaries, administrators and teachers spent the week before opening setting up rooms while dealing with the remnants of construction - new furniture deliveries and finishing touches.

"It's the same thing every school does but on a bigger scale because we're doing it all," said Dogwood Principal Karen L. Cordell.

A new school meant drawing new boundaries, traditionally an emotionally charged process. So this year, the system did something different, seeking community input through a committee made up of parents, teachers and PTA members.

The result: a population drawn primarily from Chadwick and Winfield elementary schools.

Elmwood Elementary School students will face the greatest change. A fire has forced the school system to move all 540 pupils to another setting.

Pupils will be switched to the Rosewood Center, more than three miles away, until Jan. 2. The alternative high school's students will be housed within an eight-classroom block at Cockeysville Middle School.

Despite a teacher shortage statewide, the three jurisdictions have managed to fill nearly all their positions.

Baltimore County schools have hired about 1,000 new teachers, and with days to go, had fewer than 20 slots to fill.

Harford County has 2,600 teachers and had only a couple of vacancies as of last week.

"By the first day, we will have a certified teacher in every classroom," said schools spokesman Donald R. Morrison.

Baltimore had 23 vacancies as of Friday, although officials say they don't know how many of their new teachers are certified.

Although most of Harford County's 39,500 students report to their classrooms on Tuesday, hundreds of other students get an extra day of summer vacation while the county introduces a pilot program at five schools.

The new program gives ninth-grade students at Fallston, Edgewood, Bel Air and North Harford high schools and sixth-grade students at North Harford Middle School the opportunity to get to know their teachers, classes and buildings before upperclassmen return to school on Wednesday.

"We place a lot of credence in the transition from middle school to high school," said Edgewood High Principal Stephen R. Williams. "We want to get our kids off to a good start."

Harford will open its 50th school this year. Forest Hill Elementary School, which will house 617 pupils, is expected to ease crowding in four nearby schools.

Opening a new school comes with its own challenges, says Forest Hill Principal Belinda Cole. "It's overwhelming but very exciting."

Sun staff writers Suzanne Loudermilk and Lisa Goldberg contributed to this article.

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