A new school year began in Baltimore yesterday with officials pinning their hopes for continued progress on several new small secondary schools and more rigorous academic programs.
Six new or reconfigured high schools opened their doors, including the technology-focused Digital Harbor High School and three smaller neighborhood high schools that were designed to draw students from the city's largest ones.
"We are breaking up these gigantic warehouses and creating environments where students and teachers feel like their voices can be heard," said Baltimore school board Chairwoman Patricia L. Welch.
Three new middle schools run by outside groups also held their first day of classes yesterday, promising students innovative curriculums and much smaller learning environments.
The school system added a sixth grade to 10 elementary schools, the first step in a citywide move to keep children closer to home through the eighth grade - a design that generally produces better test results.
"The message that we've been giving all these children today is that they are pioneers," said schools Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo, who toured several of the new schools with Welch, state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and Mayor Martin O'Malley.
"It's really about what they do with this opportunity," she said. "It's really the young people that will be applauded when this is all over, because they're going to make it reality."
The district hopes to build on test score gains in reading and math, mostly at the elementary level, over the past four years.
About 93,000 children and 7,000 teachers were expected to head back to class at 179 schools. Five years into a comprehensive reform effort, school officials have conceded that the coming months will bring one of their toughest challenges yet: helping the nearly 20,000 children who failed to meet tough new promotion requirements catch up.
Yesterday, the new National Academy Foundation high school, home to academies of finance, travel and tourism, and technology, opened at Port Discovery with a class of about 85 ninth-graders.
James McClung, 14, who is enrolled in the technology academy, said the smaller classes give teachers more time to help students. He also likes the idea of "shadowing" professionals in the technology sector, a critical part of the college-preparatory program.
"It's like you're actually in the business world," he said during his lunch break.
Carla Wiley, whose daughter, Erika Wilson, 14, is also in the technology academy, said she likes the location downtown.
"It shows them how to respect people's property. It shows them how to respect themselves," she said. "This teaches them step-by-step responsibility."
Sara Makris, a four-year city middle school teaching veteran who had considered leaving the profession, was optimistic about the coming year at another new high school at the Dr. Samuel L. Banks Professional Development Center on East Northern Parkway.
About 260 ninth- and 10th-graders - who otherwise would have gone to Northern High- are expected to attend this year.
Makris said she hopes the smaller size will help students feel better about their studies.
"The fact that a new school has been [opened] for them may make a difference," she said.
The school, spruced up with fresh paint, new desks and new textbooks, had some classrooms with fewer than 10 students, apparently because some who had registered had not yet arrived.
But Principal Jimmie Jones said about 35 new students showed up who hadn't registered, apparently last year's Northern ninth-graders, who were given the choice to come to the new school. Jones has been giving tours of the school to parents in recent weeks.
"I think they are telling others what they have seen," he said.
Meanwhile at the old Northern, which has been split into two schools of about 700 students each, dozens of workers hurried to complete renovations before the start of classes today - one day late.
In one corridor, classrooms were still full of construction dust and being painted. Furniture was stacked against the hallways, grout was being cleaned and "wet paint" signs hung everywhere.
Anne Carusi, the area academic officer in charge of high schools, promised that the building would be ready today, when students in the environmental science and business academies are due to arrive.
At Steuart Hill Elementary in West Baltimore, the first class of sixth-graders was ceremonially pinned by a cadre of school officials and O'Malley. They were urged to work hard so they could graduate together in 2005 and head on to high school.
Quoting from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Baltimore's official book of the year, O'Malley told the students that it was up to them to provide a positive energy in their school.
"A man is not a slave to circumstance," the mayor said.
At the Crossroads School, a new middle school being run by the nonprofit Living Classrooms Foundation, teachers wasted no time getting down to learning. The 50 students in the sixth grade - the school will add grade seven next year and grade eight in 2004 - were given two hours of homework by the time the day was over.
"We definitely want to set that tone from Day One," said Mark Conrad, Crossroads' director of instruction. "For middle school kids, actions speak ten times louder than words."
Opening day went smoothly at Lemmel Middle School in Northwest Baltimore, where Principal Vera Holley reported only minor snafus as 1,008 children returned. Holley said she had received some complaints from parents of 116 students retained in grade but the majority had complied.
"We don't want these babies to go on if they haven't met the standards," said Holley. "Their parents understand that."
Sun staff writer Mike Bowler contributed to this article.