First day, fresh start

Schools: On the first day of class, students in the city and neighboring counties enter renovated or new buildings

others enter sites with new leadership -- all with a focus on achievement.

September 05, 2001|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

For thousands of public school students in Baltimore and Baltimore and Harford counties, the arrival of the first day of school yesterday meant exploring an unfamiliar place - whether it was a new or renovated building or a school with a fresh academic focus.

Students in dozens of Baltimore County elementary schools walked into buildings that had been completely renovated as part of a two-year project.

And in Owings Mills, the debut of New Town Elementary was marked by a flood of children - many more than its official capacity of 750. Officials estimate enrollment might go as high as 950.

In the city, seven schools were closed over the summer because of declining enrollment, and more than a thousand children, like fifth-grader Dominique Coles, were headed off to a different school.

Dominique boarded her yellow bus to go to Pimlico Elementary at 7:10 a.m. with mixed emotions. "Park Heights was my first school," she said. "I went to Park Heights for six years."

But after she saw her old friends at the next bus stop, her fears seemed to melt away. Was she excited? "I am now," she said and walked down the aisle of the bus to greet her friends.

Parents standing at a bus stop in front of the closed school weren't happy. They said their children would have to rise an hour earlier to take the bus to Pimlico.

"It is a nice school and everything, but we have a school in our neighborhood," said Anna Kilson, who wishes the school board had kept Park Heights open.

City school officials, in a tour that began yesterday and continues today, are visiting schools in the "CEO's district." The 10 schools are getting extra resources, from reading specialists to mentors for first-year teachers.

Carmen V. Russo, the chief executive officer who created the district, has pledged to improve the schools so much they will be removed from the state's failing list after three years.

"It's aggressive. It's very proactive," Russo said while touring Lombard Middle, one of the schools. "But I think that what's at stake here are the minds of children, and we can't afford to lose a decade."

Sixth-graders Mesha Brown, 10, and Sade Jenkins, 11, showed up for their first day at Lombard in their new forest-green and khaki uniforms. Mesha, who attended City Springs Elementary across the street, said nothing much was different about middle school. Except, of course, for this: "It's bigger, and there's more people."

Another of the schools in the CEO's district is Westport Elementary-Middle, renamed Westport Academy and given to a company to run. New York-based Victory Schools Inc. has revamped the curriculum and teaching staff but kept the former principal. The city also paid for an extensive face lift to the classic-looking school building in South Baltimore.

At Baltimore County's newest school, New Town, officials were trying to sort through the enrollment.

Official numbers won't be available until the end of the month, spokesman Charles A. Herndon said. But the district has been closely tracking registration at the school and added seven new teachers three weeks ago when they realized the numbers continued to climb.

"The good news is we have been following this all summer," Herndon said.

Greeting students before school began yesterday, Principal Beth Strauss said there was some confusion about enrollment because so many students had not registered until late in August.

The school had stayed open over the Labor Day weekend to accommodate late registrants, but dozens of new students showed up on the first day of school, while some of those who were registered did not attend.

However, Strauss, her staff and volunteers could quickly spot those who needed to be registered, thanks to a system they had devised over the summer. Students who registered by mid-August had been mailed name tags and had been asked to wear them the first day. Volunteers swooped down on those students who didn't sport tags, quickly determining if they had a class assignment.

Through the rest of the county, school got under way with few reported hitches, despite a shortage of bus drivers and fears about ongoing construction projects at 44 elementary schools.

"We had very few calls about the renovations," Herndon said. "I think folks expected to see what they saw."

The district covered its shortage of bus drivers by doubling up on some routes in the southwest part of the county. Thirteen new drivers are in training and are expected to start their routes within the next two weeks, Herndon said.

Students in Harford County also returned to schools that were being renovated. Meadowvale and Edgewood elementary schools opened as work continued to modernize the buildings with state-of-the-art wiring and other improvements. Students also returned to Abingdon and Church Creek elementary schools, where work on additions will allow the schools to increase capacity by 250 students each.

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