Back to class with textbook ease

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On a day cool enough for children to feel they ought to be sitting behind a desk, schools in Baltimore and Harford and Baltimore counties opened their doors yesterday for 245,000 students, with only the minor, expected difficulties.

Such as riding a school bus for the first time.

Waiting for Bus No. 4 to take him to his school's temporary home several miles away, Cecil Elementary pupil James Carter Jr. had tears streaming down behind his tiny round glasses.

"He's scared," said Eva Bethea, James' grandmother, tapping on the window. "James, don't be scared!"

"It's gotta be the bus thing, it's gotta be," said his mother, Vanessa Jones, nearly in tears herself.

School officials in all three jurisdictions reported a smooth opening, with nothing more than the customary first-day transportation and facility glitches.

The new leaders of the Baltimore and Baltimore County systems toured their domains, as did Harford schools Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas. Baltimore Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo made surprise visits.

And two new schools opened, in Baltimore and Harford counties.

"All we needed was the children," said Belinda Cole, principal of Harford's Forest Hill Elementary. "And now they're here."

Dogwood Elementary opened in Woodlawn.

Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston, who took over the 107,300-student system in July, toured at least one school in each area, talking throughout about equity among schools and focusing on academic quality.

The challenge, he said as he lunched at Hereford High, is "making sure we're serious about quality in Baltimore County - quality everywhere."

Under Russo's leadership, the city will focus this year on secondary schools, which have not received the same money and attention as elementary schools since a city-state partnership was formed in 1997 to reform the system.

"We finally figured out in education that smaller is better," said Russo, discussing dividing schools into smaller learning academies. "Of course, I know about big high schools. I had them in New York with 4,000 and 5,000 students."

Several city high schools appear to be improving the environment of their halls - if not the learning in their classrooms.

At Southern, senior Darshan Luckey said there hadn't been any fights on the first day at a school plagued by violence two years ago.

Said another senior, Christine Baines: "The building is clean, spotless."

Both students said they had schedule difficulties that needed to be ironed out: They hadn't gotten the classes they either wanted or needed to graduate.

Patterson High School Principal Laura L. D'Anna said she was eager to show off the school to visiting officials, including Russo and Mayor Martin O'Malley, who toured the halls and ate lunch with students.

"I'm pumped," she said. "I'm really proud. I want others to see what we've done here."

Other schools weren't expecting visits, and that's the way Russo wanted it. She slipped away from Patterson almost unnoticed, accompanied only by her driver.

"I'm not even telling him where we're going until we get in the car," said Russo, who had promised unannounced visits. "If I told anyone, it wouldn't be a surprise."

Baltimore's second experiment with school privatization began yesterday - only this time, the city had no choice. The state school board voted this year to turn over control of Gilmor, Montebello and Furman L. Templeton elementaries to a for-profit company, Edison Schools Inc.

At Gilmor, children, teachers, parents and grandparents linked hands to make a human chain all the way around the building, a symbol of "taking back" their school. At Montebello, pupils were met by a staff dressed as train engineers for the school's "Success Express." At Furman L. Templeton, children learned the "Templeton walk" - lips zipped and hands behind their back - and began collecting green paper badges that said FBI (Found Being Incredible) for good behavior.

"It's totally different," said Laticia Hoosman, 10, a fourth-grader at Templeton who attended Patapsco Elementary last year. "They're teaching me more learning and stuff."

At Woodlawn High in Baltimore County, which can expect scrutiny after a recent, critical report that detailed low morale among staff, a lagging magnet program and dirty hallways, Principal Lynette Woodley led a combination pep rally and expectations seminar for ninth-graders, the only population to start at the school yesterday.

"We want you to think you can achieve. We want you to believe you can achieve, and then we want you to know you can," she said.

The expected hot spot, Cockeysville Middle, turned out to be anything but, welcoming its sixth-graders and a handful of the approximately 100 students from the Rosedale Center, which houses students with behavioral problems. Rosedale was moved into Cockeysville after school officials decided to move the pupils of Elmwood Elementary, whose building was damaged by a fire Aug. 22, into its quarters.

Although some angry Cockeysville parents, who opposed the Rosedale move, had threatened to keep their children home, school officials said there was "pretty close to 100 percent" attendance the first day.

By yesterday, school officials had erected barriers to mark off the alternative school population's quarters, and Cockeysville Principal Philip W. Taylor explained the shared quarters to students as he made his way from class to class.

"While this isn't the best, it's workable," Taylor said. As for the heightened emotions, he said that once parents see how the arrangement is working, "this'll end up being a nonissue."

In Harford County, the school system's 50 schools opened on schedule, with no apparent mishaps. The autumn-like weather alleviated worries about potential heat problems in four county schools, which are not air-conditioned, and five other schools, which have sections lacking air-conditioning. And a new traffic light on busy Route 543 eased vehicles into and out of C. Milton Wright High School.

With the exception of some missing carpeting, the county's newest school, Forest Hill Elementary, also opened without a hitch.

The school's 620 students were as spiffed up as their new red-and-beige brick building. "It's a little scary. It makes me feel funny inside," admitted Sarah Schmidt, 6, who bid a brave goodbye to her photo-taking parents before joining fellow students on a school bus. "I don't know where to go."

But Sarah had a surprise awaiting her at school. Mom and Dad, Cynthia Wurtzburger and Daniel Schmidt, were there as she stepped off the bus, ready to take more photographs and walk their daughter to her first-grade classroom.

Other children clung together while riding the bus, some sporting new backpacks and carrying yellow wildflowers and pink carnations for their teachers. Several said they couldn't sleep Monday night.

Some parents were having a tough time, too.

Standing by a bench just inside the new Dogwood Elementary School in Woodlawn, Margaret Stewart struggled to keep her composure as she waited for her children, 10-year-old Kim and 6-year-old Ben, to get off the bus.

The stay-at-home mom wasn't having much luck, judging by the free-flowing tears.

"Why are your eyes so red?" Kim asked her as she passed her mother, who had come to Dogwood to see her children get off the bus.

"Allergies, I guess," Stewart said.

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

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