School Superintendent Michael Martirano kicked off the first day of classes in Howard County on Tuesday by visiting a number of schools, including Howard High School, where he cheerfully bellowed “Happy New Year” to students and staff as he walked down the halls.
“As you can tell, I just love today,” Martirano said, who was wearing a 23-year-old tie featuring a yellow school bus and cars on it.
The 77-school district welcomed back nearly 58,000 students and 12,000 full- and part-time staff for the 2018-2019 academic year.
Over the summer, the school system improved safety measures at all 12 high schools, hired additional social workers, opened a new elementary school, and implemented new academic programs, including JumpStart, a program that allows students to earn credits toward a college associate’s degree.
Martirano, with Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman and Cynthia Vaillancourt, the school board chairwoman, visited Howard, River Hill, Glenelg, Oakland Mills high schools, Oakland Mills Middle School, Talbott Springs and Hanover Hills elementary schools and the Applications and Research Laboratory, known as ARL.
At Howard High School, they tested security measures, where they had to be buzzed in, a new measure at all high schools. Last year, the front doors to all high schools were unlocked, allowing anyone to come and go freely.
After entering, visitors, as in previous years, check-in through an online system that requires them to scan their driver’s license.
“Nobody is exempt for checking in,” Martirano said. “Our schools have 58,000 students and our parents entrust us to protect them from when they leave home and until they return.”
Kittleman committed $2.5 million to enhance security. The funding accelerated the high school’s entry system, provided exterior door lock systems and will fund replacing any school doors that are not up to the school system’s standard, according to Martirano.
Martirano is also addressing mental health with the schools. The school system hired three social workers for the current school year and plans to bring onboard an additional 12 social workers over the next four years.
“The moral purpose of education is to take care of students and all staff before education can occur,” Martirano said.
Kittleman, who was wearing a bookcase-themed tie, said the focus on mental health is important to have a “great, safe and strong learning environment.”
Vaillancourt said she is excited both about the impact Martirano has already made and his commitment to addressing mental health. As an outgoing board member, a major priority is to make sure the new board is set up for success working with Martirano.
The three visited a ninth-grade English Honors classroom during their Howard High visit, where they played Jenga with the students.
Kristen McManus, a ninth-grade English teacher, begins each of her new classes with community building activities, such as playing Jenga, where questions are written on the pieces that students have to answer. The questions range from “What is your favorite holiday,” to “What would you do if you won the lottery.”
“The purpose here is to have students get to know each other,” McManus said. “In English, we have a lot of in depth conversations and I want students to be comfortable to express their views.”
McManus’ students will being the school year reading “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, during her coming of age unit. Students will also read “Night” by Elie Wiesel, “The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros and others.
New school, new programs
The opening of Hanover Hills Elementary School, adjacent to Thomas Viaduct Middle School in Hanover, marks the county’s 42nd elementary school. The $40 million school has 680 students enrolled and 30 classrooms, primarily for first through fifth grade students, and six kindergarten classrooms.
JumpStart, a dual enrollment program, provides the opportunity for high school students to earn an associate’s degree simultaneously as they graduate from high school, or just one year out of high school. Through a partnership with Howard Community College, the program is being piloted at River Hill and Oakland Mills high school to allow for students to begin their college career and alleviate overcrowding at Long Reach, Centennial and Howard high schools. Students can take selected courses at either River Hill or Oakland Mills high school and then during their senior year they attend the community college as a full-time student.
A school board public hearing to address overcrowding at five high schools, including Howard, is scheduled for Sept. 11. Howard utilized the most portable classrooms last year, using 15 to accommodate over 1,900 students, according to school data.
At ARL, two new career academies, agriculture science and heating, ventilating, air condition, known as HVAC, have its first cohort of students enrolled this year.
“The two new ARL programs are huge,” said Vaillancourt, who was wearing a “I Love Public Education,” pin. “They provide more opportunities for kids who are looking for skills, a high paying career and to be self sufficient.”