New School And Old Traditions

For 1,465 Students, First Classes Ever At A Sparkling Bel Air High

August 28, 2009|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,

She sat at the steering wheel, her face as eager as a student's on her first day of class.

Susan Keyes has been driving bus No. 860 for Harford County public schools for seven years, and at 6:20 a.m. Thursday, she idled the big engine in front of the spanking-new Bel Air High School.

She was waiting for Robert Tomback, the new superintendent, to get on. It was the first day of the new school year, and it all had a bittersweet feel.

To her left, Keyes could see the partially disassembled husk of the old Bel Air High, which is slated for demolition next week. It was built in 1949, the year she was born. She graduated from the place in 1967, and her four children followed suit.

"So many memories," she said.

To her right, the new $66.4 million school building, completed July 1, gleamed.

"The size is incredible, and everything is so new," she said of the 262,424-square-foot facility. "Have you taken the tour? It makes you wish you were back in school."

Keyes wasn't, of course. That was for the 30 high-schoolers she'd pick up on her route, a small portion of the 1,465 Bel Air High and 38,000 Harford County students starting school Thursday.

It was also the first day for Tomback, who left his job as an assistant superintendent in Baltimore County several months ago to run Harford's system of 52 schools.

He was extending a tradition begun by his predecessor, the late Jacqueline Haas, who died last year. For years, she rode with students on the first day of school. "I like to start the year the way the kids do," she said in 2006.

Tomback, 59, in dark suit and tie, introduced himself to Keyes and sat in the second row. She drove down Emmorton Road and turned onto East Wheel Road, making her first stop in a subdivision.

Three students were ready at the corner. Seven others hurried down the hill, some rubbing their eyes and dragging big packs.

"I didn't expect to see, like, a billion people on the bus," said senior Brett Sikorski, in reference to the reporters and officials along for the ride.

Junior Matt Hudson ate a ritual morning Pop-Tart and sipped coffee. He looked forward to life in the new building.

"It looks like a university," he said.

Jillian Harper, a 10th-grader with an overstuffed peach book bag, stood out among her sleepy fellow riders in a bright pink T-shirt.

A straight-A student, she eyeballed her schedule, which included several honors courses, and mulled over the busy coming days.

She seemed eager to start the 2009-2010 school year, during which she'll be a cheerleader, play the flute and take rock guitar lessons. "It feels like a whole new beginning," she said.

The sun rose fully as Keyes, 60, completed her route, returning curbside at Bel Air High shortly after 7. She released the riders to a facility that features towering hall ceilings, an 802-seat auditorium, flat-screen LCD TVs in all classrooms and a stylish media center.

Floods of students from several buses merged on the main walkway, flowing smoothly through the front doors.

"This is so orderly it could be the 150th day of school, not the first," Tomback said - a nod to Principal Joseph Voskuhl, who had been organizing the grand opening for weeks.

Tomback said his own priority during his first summer was to visit every school in the county, and as he did, he saw "astounding, across-the-board dedication to the school system" among teachers, administrators, parents and students.

As miltary base relocations and other factors swell the county's population over the next few years, he said, the school system will grow accordingly. The county is now constructing two schools, a new Deerfield Elementary and a new Edgewood High, both of which will open next August.

But as Keyes lumbered off in bus No. 860, the old building in her rearview mirror, the day seemed to blend nostalgia and anticipation as one era ends and another begins.

"These students know the rich tradition of Bel Air High School, and they carry that," Tomback said as hundreds trooped into the school. "But they have a chance to write a new chapter. Listen to the banter! I think they already understand that."

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