Opening on an optimistic note

Schools: Baltimore students get off to a good start overall, despite a few flubs and high temperatures.

September 08, 2004|By Laura Loh and Mike Bowler | Laura Loh and Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

The hallways of Reginald F. Lewis High School were relatively quiet yesterday morning. Nearly every student at the North Baltimore school was in uniform - as were many teachers, who donned white-and-khaki outfits in a show of solidarity.

But in the main office of W.E.B. DuBois High School, which shares a building with Reginald F. Lewis, Leroy Gwaltney slumped in a chair as he waited for his mother to pick him up. A school bus had dropped him off here instead of Lake Clifton-Eastern High, where he is assigned.

That was the prevailing tone of the first day of the new school year: mostly good, but with some scheduling mix-ups, a few classrooms without teachers and uncomfortably high temperatures in some schools without air conditioning.

Baltimore schools were among a handful of systems that started the new academic year yesterday. Classes elsewhere in the metro area began last week.

Many city schools are under new leadership as a result of middle- and high-school reform initiatives. City schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland said the new principals had "hit the ground running."

Some other glitches included a cafeteria at Callaway Elementary that was closed because of mold, and last-minute transportation changes for 480 children - most of them disabled - who had to be taken by taxis because bus contractors canceled two dozen routes, some as recently as Thursday.

"The good news is that that's half of the number [of students transported by cabs] we had on the first day last year," said Jeffery N. Grotsky, the system's chief of staff.

Grotsky said the system received 251 complaints at its "command center" hot lines (443-984-1177 and 443-984-1178) by midafternoon, and that all but 49 were resolved.

"I can't remember another year when there was so much energy and high hopes," said Mayor Martin O'Malley, who toured six schools with city and state education officials. Last school year, the city had to give a $42 million loan to the school system to fend off a state bailout.

At W.E.B. DuBois yesterday morning, a dozen students gathered at the end of a hallway to receive class schedules. But they were in the minority, said Principal Delores Berry. "It's just little glitches that we're trying to get past," she said.

There was a bigger problem at Morrell Park Elementary/Middle in Southwest Baltimore, which was thrown into confusion when at least four middle-school substitute teachers failed to appear.

The new principal, Claudia Drumheller, was forced to assign classes to an academic coach, a retired math teacher and a parent volunteer. The sixth grade, which had no teacher, was divided between two fifth-grade instructors.

"It was a completely wasted day for my son," said Tina Stevens, who came to the school to vent her anger. "Eighth grade is the crucial year for kids who are on their way to high school, and when they start out without regular teachers, well, it's just a shame."

Grotsky said officials would "make every effort" to have Morrell Park fully staffed today. He said the system is still trying to fill vacancies through recruitment efforts in Detroit and Cleveland, cities where teachers have been laid off.

Not all school buildings were as comfortable as hoped: Many classrooms were hot and muggy.

At Frederick Elementary in West Baltimore, first-year teacher Janice Redd urged her small special-education class to concentrate on a writing exercise, as a large fan circulated warm air in the classroom.

"I know you're tired. I know it's hot. But you have to do something," Redd told them. Despite the heat, she managed to assess the three pupils who showed up yesterday and gain a sense of their needs.

It was more pleasant at Southwestern High School, where the central air conditioning was going full blast and volunteers recently installed new windows in the cafeteria, which let in a pleasant tree-lined view. "They did a wonderful job for us," said Principal Darline Lyles, "It's going to be an excellent year."

But even Southwestern's day had begun with a bit of confusion. The 2,000-student school is being converted this year into three smaller schools, and about 40 students showed up yesterday before their scheduled start date later this week.

Because "we don't send anyone home," Lyles said, the students were asked to stay and begin working with their new teachers.

The day passed quietly at Walbrook High Uniform Services Academy, the school thrown into turmoil this summer after officials said they discovered many were promoted or allowed to participate in graduation ceremonies without passing required courses. School officials still could not provide a final tally of students who took emergency summer school sessions to validate their diplomas.

Scores of students were "reclassified," said the new principal, Shirley A. Cathorne - meaning they are being held back until they pass required courses. "We want to get it right," she said.

One of those was Christin Montgomery, 15, who until a few days ago thought she would be a sophomore. Instead, she'll be a freshman taking a 10th-grade load of courses - except for the algebra class she's repeating.

"And believe me," said her father, Anthony Jackson, with a smile, "this time she'll pass."

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