Summer ends early, new tests on the horizon

Schools open in the city and most counties to allow more class time

August 28, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

There was a time when kids could lounge at the pool until Labor Day, when going back to school coincided with the first chills of autumn air.

But most of the hundreds of thousands of students returning to classes this week don't remember that far back. They know standardized tests and August beginnings, as those dreaded March assessments drive schools to squeeze in more teaching earlier.

In Maryland, the only children left at the beach are those from Worcester County, where traditions die hard and the first school bells won't ring until Sept. 4. Eighteen of the state's 24 public school systems, including all those in the Baltimore metropolitan area, opened yesterday. Four more begin today. And in Prince George's County, students have been back a week already.

The mandates confronting schools and students will ratchet up this year. All kindergartners must stay in class a full day, no nap time allowed. Eleventh-graders who haven't already passed the state's new high school exit exams will be under the gun to do so, unless state officials push back the deadline to start denying diplomas.

Baltimore's education community is looking to a new schools chief executive officer, Andres Alonso, to usher in a new day for the troubled system. But the city's teachers returned to school amid an atmosphere of uncertainty, as contract negotiations with the system remain stalled and the union is encouraging them not to put in any extra or unpaid time.

Like all first days, yesterday had its glitches - most notably in Carroll County, where more than 40 buses were vandalized and found with flat tires, running up to two hours late as a result.

Bus tires were discovered flattened shortly before 5:30 a.m. in the unsecured parking lots of three Carroll contractors. Valve stems were unscrewed from the tires to deflate them.

Each bus took about 20 minutes to repair, with the last one hitting the road about 8:30 a.m. The buses all did their routes twice to make sure all students had been picked up.

Carroll's transportation director, James Doolan, said he had never seen such extensive bus vandalism in his 37 years in education.

"There were thousands of kids affected," Doolan said. "I felt anger, shock, all those things. ... But then it was, `What do we do to resolve this?'"

State police said they were investigating but had not made any arrests.

School tragedy

Meanwhile in Baltimore, Alonso rearranged his schedule and rushed over to Dunbar High to console students devastated by the news that the school's longtime football coach had died. About a dozen crisis counselors also were dispatched.

The coach, Ben Eaton, had led Dunbar to three state championships. He collapsed in his home yesterday morning while doing exercises his doctor had recommended as he recuperated from back surgery. He was 58.

At the city school system's central office, staffers were shaken by the news that Chief Academic Officer Linda Chinnia had resigned. Officials had said that Alonso, who began his job July 1, would bring significant personnel changes, and Chinnia is the first high-profile departure.

One city school, Thomas Johnson Elementary, closed early after its air conditioning broke. Though many schools lack air conditioning - and many students complained yesterday about being hot - officials said Thomas Johnson is unsafe without it because there aren't many windows. In Baltimore County, officials reported a brief partial power outage at Arbutus Elementary.

Harford County had about 2,300 students attending new schools as a result of redistricting, and some of them were confused about where to catch the bus.

The first day of school is customarily a day for politicians to meet and greet.

Gov. Martin O'Malley and son William were in Towson to tour George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology. Joining them were Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston and County Executive James T. Smith Jr.

The officials chose to visit Carver - which is renowned for its theater program but has no auditorium - to highlight a new initiative to renovate Baltimore County's high schools. About $76 million is in the budget to launch the program.

O'Malley chatted with teachers and students - and at one point, hit a few keys on the piano in a classroom with about a dozen opera and theater students. He told them he had taken voice classes, but "I don't think they did much good." (The governor was the singer, guitarist, songwriter and tin-whistler for his band, O'Malley's March.)

At Yorkwood Elementary in Baltimore, the "lunch ladies" serving breakfast were joined by Alonso, Mayor Sheila Dixon, City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake and state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

Wearing plastic gloves, but sans a hair net, Alonso cut squares of pizza for the kids, while Dixon and Rawlings-Blake offered juice and graham crackers.

New schools

Four area systems celebrated the opening of new schools yesterday.

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