The sun hasn't risen yet, and Columbia's Long Reach High School is silent and spotless.
An occasional teacher walks through the new school's central atrium, but everything else seems perfectly still.
In less than an hour, all of this will change. More than 1,000 students will flood through the doors, and Long Reach High School officially will be born.
For now, the desks are still free of doodles. Floors are unscuffed. The spines of textbooks are uncracked. The cafeteria has yet to acquire that cafeteria odor. Even the bulletin boards lack the pinholes from a previous year.
But when the bell rings to signal the first class, the school finally will come to life.
"It's more than just new furniture and new textbooks," says technology magnet teacher Jay Fogleman, 34, who transferred to Long Reach after eight years teaching at his own alma mater, Hammond High School. "It's a new community that hasn't been founded yet. You don't have any baggage."
That's the mystique of a new school like Long Reach -- no traditions and no history, only dreams and hopes, promise and pride. Nowhere is the old cliche about the first day of classes being like a blank slate more true than at Long Reach.
Every student is like a freshman, unsure where to go or how to act. Every teacher is on equal footing with equal seniority in the school.
"Nobody knows exactly where they're going, so no one will know the freshmen from anybody else," says freshman Maria Manzulli, 13.
As the day begins at 7: 30, dozens of students are milling around the halls, still trying to figure out where their classrooms are. Even Long Reach's principal, David Bruzga, finds himself frequently referring to a map as he points students toward their assigned classes.
But within 10 or 15 minutes, all but the last few stragglers are in the right place, listening to teachers explain the rules, learning the combinations of their new lockers and receiving "Original Long Reach Student" T-shirts donated by Pepsi-Cola. The first day at Long Reach is under way.
As a new high school, Long Reach is a rarity in the Baltimore area. New elementary and middle schools open all the time, but the construction of a high school is a huge undertaking that often costs $20 million or more.
In Howard, the last new high school opened 19 years ago. This fall the county is actually opening three new high schools, Long Reach, River Hill, and a replacement building for Wilde Lake. They'll likely be the last new high schools built in Howard County for many years.
The three-story Long Reach building will become a focal point for the Columbia neighborhood, from Saturday afternoons watching the football team to dozens of evenings of school plays and concerts. Decades from now, today's students will return to Long Reach for reunions, holding onto the school as a link to their teen-age years.
Building school spirit
The week, before school starts, Long Reach's 50-member band stands out in the hot sun late one afternoon, practicing side-by-side with the school's pom-pon squad and football and girl's soccer teams.
It's over 90 degrees, and band director Matthew Dubbs, who just graduated from West Virginia University, has his band rehearsing the same routines over and over.
Even though the band now has entered its fourth hour of practice, Dubbs seems oblivious to the heat and surroundings. A junior varsity football player is running laps around the band's practice as punishment for cursing, but no one in the band pays him any attention. The band's first performance is less than two weeks away, and the horn players, drummers and flutists still seem to be marching in different directions.
"There's a lot of tradition in this county among bands," says Dubbs, himself a graduate of nearby Mount Hebron High School. "I know we're not going to be where we want for another three or four years, but in 10 years I hope we've established a tradition to match the others.
"I would be happy to stay here until the day I retire, creating a music program to make this high school proud."
Inside the school, Daniel Sageman is holed up in a chemistry classroom, unpacking boxes of textbooks and furiously preparing lectures and activities for his students. This will be his first year as a full-time teacher, and the 24-year-old knows he's fortunate.
"I'm coming into a brand-new school, with all new equipment. I'll probably never have this much new stuff again," says Sageman, who as a self-proclaimed "neat freak" wants his classroom to be impeccably organized before his students arrive. "I just lucked out in getting this job."
Down the hall is 19-year veteran math teacher Theda Mayer, diligently putting up an Amish pattern quilt bulletin board, pairing light- and dark-colored triangles. After 13 years at Mount Hebron, she comes to Long Reach looking for another challenge.