Whether principals were addressing squirming first-graders at Mount Royal Elementary or quiet ninth- and 10th-graders at the new Fairmount Harford High School, they sounded a similar theme to returning students: Come to school and work hard.
Although that theme would have rung as true in a one-room schoolhouse with primers, the Baltimore principals had their own decidedly 21st-century spin.
With a growing emphasis on accountability, principals at all levels seemed focused on making sure their students are making greater gains this year to keep up with new academic standards required by federal regulations.
"We plan on increasing our achievement," said Carolyn H. Freeland, who is in her second year as principal of Mount Royal, one of the city's top-performing schools. To the first- and second-graders she said, "I want you to go home and tell your parents you have to be here every single day. We must be on time."
For Karen Lawrence, who has helped open the new Fairmount Harford, keeping ninth-graders from dropping out of school is a primary goal. "We are going to get to know these kids individually. We are going to hold on to them," Lawrence said after a first-day assembly.
Lawrence's new neighborhood high school is a small spinoff from Lake Clifton/Eastern High School, which is just across a park. At Lake Clifton, 500 students are repeating the ninth grade.
City schools are in the second year of a major reform of high schools. Lake Clifton, which had 2,200 students a year ago, has been split into five schools, one of them Fairmount Harford.
The system also is trying to improve teaching and is starting at ninth grade. Every ninth-grade English teacher received extra training this summer, said the city's interim schools chief, Bonnie S. Copeland.
Two new high schools - New Era and the Baltimore Freedom academies - opened as part of an effort to provide a rigorous academic environment for students who want to attend college but might not have met the standards for the selective citywide high schools.
Students at Baltimore Freedom Academy were so excited that the 100 freshmen began filing through the doors of the school's temporary home at Baltimore City Community College 45 minutes early, at 8:15 a.m.
"It was better than I could ever have imagined," said Freedom Academy's head of school, Tisha Edwards. "These kids have an unbelievable amount of talent and potential and I think this school is going to tap into that."
Copeland said her focus this year will be on the basics of classroom instruction and how to better train teachers.
At the same time, the new school chief executive officer said, she also must ensure that the district's finances are brought under control. Going into this year, the system was burdened with about a $41 million deficit.
Baltimore schools were the last public schools to open in the region and for the first time in at least a decade the enrollment was not expected to decline, although official figures will not be available until the end of the month.
The school system's lowest enrollment in recent years was just less than 94,000 last year.
Across the city, most schools opened yesterday with few glitches, Copeland said.
Seven schools will open late this year, including Dr. Samuel L. Banks High School, Abbottston Elementary School, the Stadium School and Highlandtown Elementary School No. 237. All four were to use a large facility at 2500 E. Northern Parkway. Flooding followed by an electrical explosion that blew out the power at the facility required those schools to be moved elsewhere. They will open tomorrow. Copeland said she hopes students will back in their regular classrooms on Northern Parkway within a couple of weeks.
In addition, Digital Harbor and Southern high schools, both at 1100 Covington St., and Lafayette Elementary School, which is to be opened in the Calverton Middle School building, will open late because of delays in renovating the schools.
Another problem was caused by a dispute over pay between the district and a school bus contractor. As a result, about 60 special education students, who ride 12 buses, didn't get to school on time. School system officials said Hopkins Transportation notified them at 6 a.m. that they would not be picking up the students because the company received $5,200 less than expected Friday. After negotiations with the contractor, a school spokeswoman said, the two sides agreed that the company would transport the children starting about 8 a.m. yesterday, and will continue operating the routes while the dispute is discussed.
The first day of school was popular with politicians running for office. They turned up in larger-than-usual numbers this year.
A group that included Mayor Martin O'Malley and City Council members, who are running in Tuesday's primary, and Copeland and state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick toured five schools yesterday, ending at Dr. Rayner Browne, where Baltimore Ravens star linebacker Ray Lewis handed out backpacks to every child.
The mayor, whose chief challenger in the primary is Walbrook High Uniform Services Academy Principal Andrey Bundley, visited Harlem Park Elementary. The school, in a distressed West Baltimore neighborhood, has shown improvement in test scores.
"I'm the mayor," O'Malley said as he introduced himself in teacher Michael Forney's fourth-grade class. "I work with you and your parents. Can I count on you?"
The mayor was accompanied by his 5-year-old son, William, who carried his dad's agenda book and announced at one point, "I didn't have to go to school today."
Copeland and Grasmick heaped praised on Anna Bailey, the Harlem Park principal, for leading her school through three consecutive years of improvement, enough to earn removal from the state's watch list of poor performers.
"It is exhilarating to see the fresh faces ready to get right to work," Copeland said.
She could have been visiting Glenmount Elementary/Middle School in Northeast Baltimore, where only the large tears rolling down the cheeks of kindergartners seemed to mar the first day of school. By early morning, students were all in classes and the room set aside for bad behavior was blessedly empty.