Jitters and excitement on first day of school

Gov. Martin O'Malley wedged himself and his lunch tray between two first-graders at a table at Hillcrest Elementary School in Baltimore County and began eating pieces of banana as he struck up a conversation with the 6-year-olds.

Darlene Lopez kept eating her jelly sandwich, except for the crusts, and Mazzy Dring pointed out her first-day-of-school outfit. Neither was impressed that a governor would drop by for lunch on their first day of school, but perhaps that was because neither one knew who the man with the gray hair was, nor did they know what a governor does.

At the next table, Baltimore County schools chief Dallas Dance seemed to be a better-known figure. Caron Hill, another first-grader, said he thought the older man at his table was a doctor who "goes to school and tries to help people."

So went the annual first-day-of-school tours by officials who included O'Malley, state schools Superintendent Lillian Lowery, city and county leaders, and school superintendents. Schools opened Monday in most Maryland districts without incident, but the year ahead will bring some of the most substantive changes in a decade in what is being taught.

For the first time, all public schools in the state will be switching to a new curriculum, a change that was dictated by the state's decision to sign on to the common core standards, which are designed to require higher-level thinking and more rigorous lessons than what has been taught in the past.

Dance said he was impressed on his tour by the many classrooms he saw where the paperwork had been finished and the lessons had started.

"Kids are really engaged in learning," he said.

After a high-profile shooting at Perry Hall High last year on the first day, Baltimore County has a new security system that requires parents and other visitors to swipe their driver's license the first time they enter a school. The system scans for convicted sex offenders but does not reveal any other information about the visitors, including whether they have other criminal backgrounds or pending charges.

In Baltimore City, where the school system is undergoing several transitions, including an interim superintendent, parents said they were hoping their children will find a sense of stability.

"I just hope we can get through the new year with less crying and more learning," said Courtney Sentz, whose daughter had a teary morning on the first day at Hampden Elementary/Middle School.

Khristen Brown, a kindergarten teacher at Hampden, said she was looking forward to a new curriculum as the system moves toward the new literacy and math standards.

"It will take some time to get acclimated to change, but I'm excited for the new year," Brown said.

Interim Baltimore City schools CEO Tisha Edwards kicked off the first day at Hampden before heading to a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Baltimore Design School, where city and state officials celebrated a $26 million renovation of the former Lebow clothing factory.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake told students there that by the end of the year, "nobody's going to be impressed with this building, they're going to be impressed with what you're doing."

While there was plenty of excitement and jitters evident among the children, Mamie J. Perkins, Anne Arundel County's interim schools superintendent, saw evidence of something else in some young students' eyes.

"Are you still a little sleepy?" she asked students at Jones Elementary School at Severna Park, and a few sheepishly nodded yes.

Though she's worked in education for 40 years, Perkins said she still gets butterflies on the first day of school. But not for herself — for the teachers and students.

"I get butterflies for them today as they open up their new things," Perkins said. "They have such hope and promise in their eyes as they anticipate a great school year, and that's what I hope for them as well."

In Howard County, some students are in different schools, a result of the elementary-level redistricting approved by the Board of Education last fall, and in some cases the buildings are different, thanks to renovations. About 600 students are back to class in the new Ducketts Lane Elementary School in Elkridge.

"It's a perfect fresh start for the kids," said Dawn Bennett, mother of a third-grader.

In Harford County, interim Superintendent Barbara Canavan, County Executive David Craig and other officials boarded a bus on its way to Havre de Grace Elementary School.

Over the summer, school board members approved measures such as consolidating bus routes and implementing fees for sports and extracurricular activities, blaming Craig and the County Council for not giving them enough money.

Craig said he expects smoother sailing now that the school year is underway.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Erica L. Green, Pamela Wood, David Anderson and Sara Toth contributed to this article.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com