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With gleam, glitches, the school year begins

The Baltimore Sun

Fourteen-year-old Corey McLaurin returned to school in Northeast Baltimore yesterday to find much had changed since he left in June.

Thurgood Marshall Middle, where he thought he would begin eighth grade, had moved from a regular building to portable classrooms in the parking lot, making room for a high school that now shares the campus. But then Corey learned he was no longer enrolled there. The middle school had cut its enrollment, sending Corey and other pupils elsewhere. Corey said he never received a transfer notice.

"The first day of school shouldn't be this difficult," said his father, Corey McLaurin Sr., who rushed from his job in Jessup to help his son navigate the bureaucracy to enroll at Dunbar Middle, miles away.

Around the region, hundreds of thousands of students began a new school year yesterday as lingering summer heat left some in stuffy classrooms wishing they were back at the pool. As a result of several school closings and consolidations in Baltimore, 4,300 city students were assigned to different schools, a transition that officials said was remarkably smooth overall.

And in the heat of a campaign season, political candidates took advantage of the opportunities to meet and greet that the first day of school brings.

Trailed by his photographer, Mayor Martin O'Malley jumped around on an alphabet rug and sang with pre-kindergartners at Margaret Brent Elementary. The Democratic gubernatorial candidate ducked into one classroom after another, posing for pictures and telling the kids, "I love you guys."

Kendel Ehrlich, the governor's wife, met with students in a new Mandarin Chinese program at Baltimore County's Dulaney High. Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, met with the PTA at Elkridge Elementary in Howard County. One of his Democratic opponents, U.S. Rep. Benjamin Cardin, greeted students at Baltimore City College, where vandals did more than $100,000 in damage this month.

For many students, it was a day of transition. Dulaney dismissed freshmen a few minutes before the end of class periods to make sure they had enough time to find where they were going next. Sixth- and ninth-graders in Anne Arundel County had their schools to themselves; older students will start school today.

At Northwest Middle in Carroll County, sixth-grader Rachel Loughry was well acquainted with the school's layout after spending a month this summer in a program designed to ease the transition from elementary school. She told her classmates to "stay to the right" in the halls so that they don't get "trampled" by eighth-graders.

City school officials said they started the year with far fewer teaching vacancies than in previous years and with far fewer problems transporting special education students.

Some schools experienced bigger problems than others did. Pupils at Coldstream Park Elementary/Middle in Baltimore got an extra day of summer because of water problems at the school.

In Harford County, two teachers at Forest Lakes Elementary unlocked their portable classrooms and found everything covered in soot, apparently the result of an overnight lightning strike and fire.

In Anne Arundel County, power outages at Magothy River and Severn River middle schools prompted the dismissal of pupils shortly after they arrived.

At Old Mill Middle School North, crisis counselors were on hand to help pupils cope with the death of a 12-year-old classmate, Tawn Anderson, who was found in his basement Aug. 21 with a gunshot wound to the upper body.

Arundel's new superintendent, Kevin M. Maxwell, pledged to visit 35 schools this week. He was at eight of them yesterday.

Howard County students returned to more expensive lunches, a strengthened anti-bullying policy and a new wellness policy that effectively eliminates the sale of high-fat, high-sugar snacks and sodas during the school day.

Baltimore County opened its first new middle school in 22 years. Windsor Mill Middle School, in the Liberty Road corridor, cost $30.4 million to build. Doors also opened yesterday at Dayton Oaks Elementary, a $21.5 million building in Howard County.

A new Marley Middle School, costing $33 million, will open tomorrow in Glen Burnie.

In the city, the focus has been on making more efficient use of space amid declining enrollment. The school system spent more than $30 million over the summer to improve 40 school buildings, receiving children displaced by closings.

O'Malley and the city schools' interim chief executive officer, Charlene Cooper Boston, had high praise for the upgrades as they toured two of the campuses affected by the changes.

At Margaret Brent Elementary, where Boston began her teaching career more than 35 years ago, pupils found an expanded library and new classrooms to accommodate the school's first class of sixth-graders. Brent is one of many city elementary schools that are planning to add sixth through eighth grades as some low-performing middle schools are closed.

From Brent, the mayor and the interim CEO went to the Thurgood Marshall complex, which in previous years has housed Thurgood Marshall Middle and Thurgood Marshall High. This year, it is also home to Dr. Samuel L. Banks High School, which was displaced when its building closed. In recent months, community members have been in an uproar over the move, saying it would cause a gang conflict.

To ease those concerns, officials doubled the security force at the complex this year, to four school police officers, two resource officers (police officers without the authority to arrest) and four hall monitors. They also installed 63 security cameras.

Antonio Williams, chief of the city schools police, said he did not get money for any additional officers, so providing extra security at the Marshall complex meant diverting officers from other schools.

The halls in the complex were quiet and the floors were gleaming yesterday as the politicians and administrators toured. Banks Principal Anthony Harold showed them the computers in each classroom. (Three hundred computers were donated to Banks after a Sun article last year about lack of technology at the technology-themed school.)

But in some classes, attendance was sparse. O'Malley visited an algebra class at Banks with six students present, then a music class with seven. This is the second year that city schools have opened before Labor Day to fit in more instructional days before the state's standardized tests.

"There's still the mindset that school starts after Labor Day," Harold said. "We want to encourage parents to send their children to school every day, including before Labor Day."

O'Malley praised the new windows, the fresh paint and especially the refurbished bathrooms. He was elusive, though, when a girl at Thurgood Marshall High asked him, "You gonna get us some air conditioners?"

There is air conditioning in the four portable classroom buildings where the middle school is now located.

Outside the portables, officials ran into Corey McLaurin and his father. Learning of the family's plight, City Council President Sheila Dixon demanded to know how many other students were in the same situation.

"Here's another one," a mother told her, explaining a similar situation with her daughter.

School board Chairman Brian D. Morris said the confusion over transfers was minimal. He said the school system sent multiple letters to students being transferred, called their homes and in some cases made home visits. In a school system with an enrollment of 83,000 and high student mobility, he said, isolated cases of confusion are inevitable.

Kenya Lee, the PTA president at Thurgood Marshall Middle, started the day fuming that her four children had all been assigned to schools other than where she had arranged for them to go. But by the end of the day, her problems were resolved. The second day would be better, she said.

Sun reporters Anica Butler, Gina Davis, Mary Gail Hare, Liz F. Kay and John-John Williams IV contributed to this article.

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