Back to class with textbook ease

Area schools open with officials' visits, new buildings to use

`Serious about quality'

September 06, 2000|By Liz Bowie and Erika Niedowski | Liz Bowie and Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

On a day cool enough for children to feel they ought to be sitting behind a desk, schools in Baltimore and Harford and Baltimore counties opened their doors yesterday for 245,000 students, with only the minor, expected difficulties.

Such as riding a school bus for the first time.

Waiting for Bus No. 4 to take him to his school's temporary home several miles away, Cecil Elementary pupil James Carter Jr. had tears streaming down behind his tiny round glasses.

"He's scared," said Eva Bethea, James' grandmother, tapping on the window. "James, don't be scared!"

"It's gotta be the bus thing, it's gotta be," said his mother, Vanessa Jones, nearly in tears herself.

School officials in all three jurisdictions reported a smooth opening, with nothing more than the customary first-day transportation and facility glitches.

The new leaders of the Baltimore and Baltimore County systems toured their domains, as did Harford schools Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas. Baltimore Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo made surprise visits.

And two new schools opened, in Baltimore and Harford counties.

"All we needed was the children," said Belinda Cole, principal of Harford's Forest Hill Elementary. "And now they're here."

Dogwood Elementary opened in Woodlawn.

Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston, who took over the 107,300-student system in July, toured at least one school in each area, talking throughout about equity among schools and focusing on academic quality.

The challenge, he said as he lunched at Hereford High, is "making sure we're serious about quality in Baltimore County - quality everywhere."

Under Russo's leadership, the city will focus this year on secondary schools, which have not received the same money and attention as elementary schools since a city-state partnership was formed in 1997 to reform the system.

"We finally figured out in education that smaller is better," said Russo, discussing dividing schools into smaller learning academies. "Of course, I know about big high schools. I had them in New York with 4,000 and 5,000 students."

Several city high schools appear to be improving the environment of their halls - if not the learning in their classrooms.

At Southern, senior Darshan Luckey said there hadn't been any fights on the first day at a school plagued by violence two years ago.

Said another senior, Christine Baines: "The building is clean, spotless."

Both students said they had schedule difficulties that needed to be ironed out: They hadn't gotten the classes they either wanted or needed to graduate.

Patterson High School Principal Laura L. D'Anna said she was eager to show off the school to visiting officials, including Russo and Mayor Martin O'Malley, who toured the halls and ate lunch with students.

"I'm pumped," she said. "I'm really proud. I want others to see what we've done here."

Other schools weren't expecting visits, and that's the way Russo wanted it. She slipped away from Patterson almost unnoticed, accompanied only by her driver.

"I'm not even telling him where we're going until we get in the car," said Russo, who had promised unannounced visits. "If I told anyone, it wouldn't be a surprise."

Baltimore's second experiment with school privatization began yesterday - only this time, the city had no choice. The state school board voted this year to turn over control of Gilmor, Montebello and Furman L. Templeton elementaries to a for-profit company, Edison Schools Inc.

At Gilmor, children, teachers, parents and grandparents linked hands to make a human chain all the way around the building, a symbol of "taking back" their school. At Montebello, pupils were met by a staff dressed as train engineers for the school's "Success Express." At Furman L. Templeton, children learned the "Templeton walk" - lips zipped and hands behind their back - and began collecting green paper badges that said FBI (Found Being Incredible) for good behavior.

"It's totally different," said Laticia Hoosman, 10, a fourth-grader at Templeton who attended Patapsco Elementary last year. "They're teaching me more learning and stuff."

At Woodlawn High in Baltimore County, which can expect scrutiny after a recent, critical report that detailed low morale among staff, a lagging magnet program and dirty hallways, Principal Lynette Woodley led a combination pep rally and expectations seminar for ninth-graders, the only population to start at the school yesterday.

"We want you to think you can achieve. We want you to believe you can achieve, and then we want you to know you can," she said.

The expected hot spot, Cockeysville Middle, turned out to be anything but, welcoming its sixth-graders and a handful of the approximately 100 students from the Rosedale Center, which houses students with behavioral problems. Rosedale was moved into Cockeysville after school officials decided to move the pupils of Elmwood Elementary, whose building was damaged by a fire Aug. 22, into its quarters.

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