Officials' traditional bus ride starts school year

Death of principal casts shadow over first week of classes

September 03, 2006|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

The week that classes resumed for nearly 41,000 students in Harford County, school officials were faced with a lightning fire that damaged two portable classrooms at Forest Lakes Elementary, a hazardous chemical leaking into the water at another school and the sudden death of a beloved principal.

Cleanup is under way in the classrooms at Forest Lakes Elementary after the fire. Forest Hill Elementary is dispensing bottled water and has installed temporary hand-washing stations. And crisis teams at William Paca/Old Post Elementary are helping students and staff members deal with the death of Principal Franklin L. Tull on Tuesday.

For Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas, the troublesome week began with her annual first-day-of-school bus ride, a tradition established about a decade ago.

"I like to start the year the way the kids do," Haas said.

Harford County has 400 buses on even more routes, and they log mileage that is the equivalent of six round trips to California daily. Haas said she learned long ago that elementary students are more amenable to riding with school officials and, this year, with several political candidates. She chose a route to Abingdon Elementary, one that makes six stops and collects about 30 children.

"There is a different dynamic with middle and high school students," Haas said. "They break down into their social circles and we are not as well received."

Before leaving the campus, she reviewed the latest safety features, including higher-backed, padded seats, with her guests, who included County Council President Robert S. Wagner and Councilwoman Veronica "Roni" Chenowith.

"I need a booster seat," Chenowith said.

Wagner said the higher seats make it harder to "pick on the kid in front of you."

For state Sen. J. Robert Hooper, the ride brought back memories of 1954, when high school seniors frequently doubled as bus drivers and children sat three to a seat.

"I drove kids to the elementary and then went on to my high school," Hooper said. "I remember watching the mirror as much as the road. It wasn't stressful, but I guess I didn't know what stress was then. I will say the seats today are a lot safer and more comfortable."

During the ride to Abingdon Elementary, Bonny Campbell, driver of bus No. 856, made sure each child had a color-coded ticket, a reminder of which bus to board at day's end. Salina M. Williams, a school board member, gave bookmarks to children and remarked on the latest in wheeled book bags and lunchboxes.

"I know now what I can get for my granddaughter," Williams said of the gear. "It is amazing all the supplies they carry in bags bigger than some of them. It is really good to see the excitement on children's faces today."

The superintendent invited one kindergartner to share her seat, and the two chatted as the bus moved on. Jayati Sondhi, 5, spoke of her first-day excitement, her new classroom and her three older brothers. She showed off her new dress, princess book bag and a multipocketed lunch sack.

At the back of the bus, far from officials' banter, Nick Armada, 7, pulled sign duty. On Campbell's command, Nick held a sign at the back door of the bus to alert traffic that the bus was backing up.

"I love to sit back here and hold the sign," Nick said. "My mom is driving to school, so I can show her my classroom, but I like to ride the bus."

Morgan Scheler, 10, said she prefers a car ride to the constant stopping and starting on the bus. But she was eager to return to school.

"I did everything I wanted this summer, and I'm ready to go back," Morgan said.

Haas said the ride reinforced for her the important role bus drivers play in the lives of schoolchildren.

"These drivers have the first contact with kids," she said. "They have the power to make the day wonderful for them."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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