First-day jitters evident as schools open

Teachers, children begin to settle in for another year

August 28, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

A mixture of nerves, fear and excitement kept Jordan Sisk-Johnson up all night before his first day at his new school yesterday. And once in math class, he fidgeted in his seat, tapped his pencil on the desk and swung his feet a few inches off the floor.

"I still have butterflies," said Jordan, who is 10. But he quickly added, "At the end of the summer, I just get bored and I want to go back to school. I love today!"

Even his math teacher at Arundel Middle School in Gambrills, 16-year veteran Kathy Plitt, admitted to having her own stomachaches on the first day of classes in Anne Arundel County schools. And then, if that weren't enough, the schools superintendent stopped by.

FOR THE RECORD - In some editions of The Sun yesterday, a text box referred incorrectly to a drop of SAT scores by 32 points among Anne Arundel County students. The average score among Arundel students actually dropped four points from last year's average. The Sun regrets the error.

Plitt told Eric J. Smith, the county's new schools chief, that the children were learning about the median and mode. Smith, who was once a math teacher himself, scratched his head.

"Is that like how I got up this morning and I was in a good mode?" he quipped to the stone-faced pupils.

Most of Anne Arundel County's 75,800 schoolchildren returned to classes yesterday, and many appeared to be in a good mode, as well. They sported fresh haircuts and squeaky-clean sneakers and enormous backpacks.

"It feels good," said Arundel Middle sixth-grader Courtney Clark, 11, who was looking forward to getting her locker at the end of the day. "I'm excited because I get to go to new classes and get out on my own."

All elementary school pupils returned yesterday, while the middle schools welcomed new sixth-graders and the high schools welcomed freshmen. All students must report today, except those at three schools - Davidsonville Elementary and North County and Southern high schools - which have delayed openings.

Anne Arundel schools, the state's fifth-largest system, are buzzing with change. Smith, who started July 1 and is quickly making his mark, is part of the reason. But other changes - put in motion by former superintendent Carol S. Parham - are materializing.

Among them:

Five high schools - Arundel, Glen Burnie, Meade, North County and Old Mill - are putting ninth-graders into what they call "smaller learning communities" in a program funded by a three-year, $2.1 million federal grant. Each community will have about 200 students and a group of teachers who will work and plan together.

Starting next year, those high schools will begin career academies in areas such as business and health and the arts to give students an idea of what to expect in the workplace.

The middle schools are switching from traditional six-period days to either four-period or seven-period days. The change will allow the schools to provide sixth- and seventh-graders with two periods of language arts daily and the electives required by the state - fine arts, physical education and health. Smith has said he will evaluate the controversial double-language arts requirement and may make changes for next school year.

A new $14.8 million Davidsonville Elementary School will open tomorrow and welcome about 600 students.

And next week, a $17.7 million addition to North County High School will be completed, providing room for 460 more students. The school already has the capacity for 1,740 students.

Students in 14 elementary schools - most of them in Annapolis - will get new back-to-basics reading and math curricula. Such programs have increased test scores in other school systems.

Smith decided to implement the curricula - at a cost of $850,000 - to halt sliding test scores at many of those schools, and to see if a uniform curriculum would work in Anne Arundel County.

Twenty-three additional schools will be getting window air conditioners, but they won't be installed until the spring. Seventy-nine of the county's 117 schools have air conditioning.

Arundel Middle is not one of them. Students sweated through lessons yesterday, while some teachers kept towels draped over their shoulders. All the classrooms had fans roaring, and many had water coolers.

But teacher Plitt was unfazed. After the superintendent left her classroom yesterday, she asked her class what they had learned on their first day.

"We organized a line of data," one boy said.

"We discussed what median and range is."

"We learned something about other people."

Jordan Sisk-Johnson got over his nerves and added, "I'm excited."

"Me, too," Plitt said. "Me, too."

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