Opening day for schools blends firsts with familiar

New faces and rules await students returning to class

August 27, 2002|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

Small children sat at desks fingering pencils, erasers and books. A smiling teacher stood in front of the classroom again asking for attention and checking attendance. And everyone followed along again as the principal recited the Pledge of Allegiance and read the daily announcements.

It was back to school yesterday in Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties. At Padonia International Elementary, that meant a return to yellow school buses coursing through Cockeysville, clanging orange lockers and Kristine Thompson assigning her 21 charges homework for the evening.

"Did you notice all of the changes when you came to school?" Thompson asked shortly after her third-graders stowed their backpacks, sharpened their long pencils and settled into their desks.

For Thompson's pupils, as for the tens of thousands of eager schoolchildren across the metropolitan area who returned to classrooms, there were plenty of changes - new teachers, new classmates, new schools - to deal with. But one of the big myths about opening day is the degree of difference. Truth be told, much is old hat for students.

"They walk in the front door like they've been here forever," Principal Karen M. Cashen said, striding through Padonia International's shiny hallways, greeting the passing pupils and chatting with teachers as if there had been no summer break.

At Padonia, a studied effort was made on the first day to get pupils into the learning groove as if they had never given up instruction for lazy days at the beach, hot afternoons at the playground or, in the case of many of Padonia's pupils, trips to the far-away homelands of their parents.

Plenty of changes

In her opening announcement to the school's 315 pupils shortly after the 8:30 a.m. start, Cashen said they would find changes in the building, which received a new air-conditioning system, computer wiring and a refurbished cafeteria this summer. A few missing ceiling tiles showed where a sprinkler system had been installed.

"But you will still see the smiling face of Miss Julie," Cashen told the pupils, referring to beloved cafeteria manager Julie Brown.

Schools opened yesterday without incident in the four counties. Classes are scheduled to begin today in Anne Arundel County and Sept. 3 in Baltimore City, except at the three schools run by Edison Schools Inc., a for-profit company.

New dress codes

In Harford and Carroll counties, students followed new dress codes barring short shorts and pants that drag. Throughout the region, students arrived at schools that had been renovated and at buildings opening their doors for the first time, including Reservoir High and Homewood schools in Howard County and Winters Mill High School in Carroll County.

In her classroom at the far end of Padonia International, Thompson, 32, embarked on her ninth year of teaching with a tested sing-song voice and a well-worn plan for starting things off by instructing her pupils from the beginning.

So after her pupils bounded inside with the squeak of new sneakers and the scratch of moving chairs, Thompson quickly dispatched with welcomes and attendance checks and made a mathematics lesson out of taking down the selections of pupils buying lunch.

"If we have 21 in the class, and nine are buying, how many are bringing their lunch?" Thompson asked. Hands were immediately thrust into the air, making the room look like a field of outstretched arms.

Learning the ropes

When the first child asked to go to the bathroom, Thompson transformed the request into her first lesson on the rules of the classroom. She explained how each pupil had to place a bathroom pass on his or her desk before leaving the room and asked the girl who made the request to demonstrate for everyone before heading down the hall.

"I'm so happy to have you," Amna Zehra blurted out. An 8-year-old whose flowing dark hair was newly cut to shoulder length, Amna had Thompson as her teacher in first grade. The girl was new to the United States then - her family had just emigrated from Pakistan - and could barely communicate in English.

"When I was in the first grade, it was the first time I came to America, so I was really nervous because I didn't speak English," she said. But this opening day? "I didn't feel nervous at all."

Day draws to close

As the day wore on, Thompson escorted Amna and her classmates to physical education, rehearsed a fire drill and spoke again about the rules of her class. The pupils practiced their handwriting by taking down the five rules and played a game to get to know their classmates.

Toward the end of the day, with the chill from the new air conditioning having worn off, Benjamin Cobb leaned back in his chair, and Ariana Guion laid her head on her desk.

It was 3 p.m., and the luster of the first day had warn off. It was like any other school day as tired pupils gladly stuffed belongings into their backpacks, the bell sounded and the door to the outside world opened up. The warm afternoon air rushed in, and the schoolchildren happily filed out.

"See everyone tomorrow," Thompson said. The pupils would be in class again.

Sun staff writers Stephen Kiehl, Jennifer McMenamin, Erika Niedowski and Tanika White contributed to this article.

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