Optimism prevails as school resumes


Lots of people are optimistic about the new school year, which starts today in the city when about 87,000 youngsters are expected to emerge from summer vacation and return to classes.

There's city schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland, who reports that she is hearing positive comments from school employees: "People are coming up to me all across the system saying, 'We are so excited about this school year.'"

There's Valerie Belton, a Gardenville Elementary teacher who persuaded the people at IKEA's national call center in White Marsh to donate new bookcases, rugs and children's furniture to spruce up her portable classroom.

"I'm just looking forward to the excitement on [pupils'] faces when they come in," Belton said.

And there's 10-year-old Darius Hall, who is eager to meet "my new teacher and the new kids" when he returns to Westside Elementary as a fifth-grader.

School officials said the outlook for the system is good this year. It was clouded by uncertainty last year, when a financial crisis forced hundreds of layoffs and deep budget cuts.

"We're feeling a lot better," said Jeffery N. Grotsky, the system's chief of staff. "We feel a sense of stability since we have our financial house in order. Folks should feel comfortable."

There will be no more layoffs, officials said, though the system will be operating under a plan to reduce a $58 million deficit. Class sizes will grow by about two students for the second consecutive year, and there will be fewer mentors for new teachers and no elementary guidance counselors.

Other savings include about $2 million cut from the transportation budget by staggering the schedules of schools and having fewer buses run more routes.

The transportation plan means that some of the system's 180-plus schools will adopt new schedules, with starting times ranging from 7:45 a.m. to 9 a.m. and dismissals ranging from 2:35 p.m. to 3:50 p.m. MTA schedules have been adjusted to the new middle- and high-school schedules, Grotsky said.

Enrollment is down

This year's projected enrollment is several thousand students less than last year's. But officials hope to boost student rolls before the system's Sept. 30 deadline for reporting its enrollment to the state, which will determine funding based on that report.

Administrators will be tracking down students who do not show up for school and encouraging them to register.

"We encourage our parents or anyone else, if they see a kid on the street, to shoo 'em into the closest school and we'll get them registered," Grotsky said.

Although this will be a year of frugal spending, the system has budgeted about $1 million to begin a middle-school reform effort that will include teacher coaching and researching the academic benefits of elementary-middle schools.

A two-year-old high school reform initiative will continue, with the opening of two more "innovation" high schools and the breakup of two large high schools, Southwestern High and Walbrook High Uniform Services Academy, into smaller schools.

School officials said they expect a smooth opening day.

High-school scheduling wasn't completed until the end of summer, but, Copeland said, "every child that we know about will have a schedule" on the first day of school.

Many students will notice their schools looking brighter and cleaner than when they left them last year.

Scores of school buildings have been spruced up by thousands of volunteers who spent weekends over the summer painting classrooms, fixing windows and picking up trash. The campaign, organized by Mayor Martin O'Malley's office, saved the system an estimated $5 million to $10 million in maintenance costs.

Mold not a problem

School officials said the mold problems that some schools experienced last year are history. Every building has been certified by the city Health Department as having undergone mold-abatement, Grotsky said.

With the help of the mayor's office, school officials also have made progress in testing water fountains that were shut down because of lead contamination.

About 400 of the system's water fountains have been deemed safe and are ready to be turned back on, Copeland said, and more will be restored throughout the school year.

"Any system with 11,000 employees and 180 schools and 87,000 students, we don't know what perfection is," Grotsky said. "But we're working toward it."

For a list of school starting times, see http://www.baltimore sun.com/schedules.

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