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It’s back to school for students in D.C.

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A gaggle of fifth-graders lined up silently Monday outside Room 12 at the John Burroughs Education Campus in Northeast Washington, their 10-year-old energy muffled by first-day-of-school shyness.

Their new teacher, Hope Harrod, greeted them with a bright “Good morning!”

The city’s challenge is to transform its long-struggling school system. To do that, school leaders are banking heavily on teachers such as this 11-year veteran, whom they call one of the District’s best. Harrod’s challenge on this morning is to begin creating a world inside her classroom where these preteens can — and want to — learn.

Despite the heavy responsibility, Harrod said she no longer gets first-day jitters.

Except for right now, about 8:45 a.m., this moment before kids file inside to take their seats, when everything is yet to come and feels a little awkward and when lofty goals — inspiring kids to think independently, articulate their ideas and, above all, develop a love of reading — recede behind something more mundane.

To kids, this day might seem like a rapid-fire series of introductions and ice-breakers. But really, it’s about teaching routines — for entering the classroom, storing backpacks, going to the bathroom, moving around the room, turning in homework, joining in group discussions, using shared markers and glue sticks — that the kids will soon do automatically, as if breathing.

“These systems are not meant to limit them — they’re just to help them understand how to navigate their world, navigate the classroom,” Harrod said. “This way all they have to focus on is learning. They don’t have to be stressed out about making a mistake and doing something improperly.”

Challenges

Five years after then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) took control of the D.C. schools, student achievement has risen and more than a dozen crumbling buildings — including three this year in Ward 8 — have been overhauled, giving kids new and gleaming places to learn.

Still, fewer than half of the District’s public school students are proficient in math and reading, and the future contours of public education in the city are far from sure. The 45,000-student system cannot afford to continue operating so many small and under-enrolled schools, Chancellor Kaya Henderson has said repeatedly. More than 40 schools have fewer than 300 students each, and neighborhoods are bracing for school closures.

There are also uncertainties about how to strike the right balance between traditional neighborhood schools and the fast-growing charter sector, about what the teachers’ union will and won’t win in the next round of contract negotiations, about whether political scandals surrounding Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) will distract from or derail reform.

But as kids shouldered backpacks and headed to class Monday, their teachers faced a more immediate issue: What exactly do you do on Day One?

“The first week of school is probably the most important. It sets a tone,” said Frazier O’Leary, a longtime Advanced Placement English teacher at Cardozo Senior High. O’Leary dispenses with formalities on the first day.

Instead, as kids walk into class he hands them a copy of an Edward P. Jones short story about a young girl’s first day of school. Right away they are reading the story, puzzling over its literary devices, writing their own versions of first-day stories.

Most of them are seniors. O’Leary wants them to realize that there is no time to waste.

“I want to hear, ‘You mean we’ve got to work on the first day?’ ” he said.

Students watch teachers carefully that first day, forming impressions that will shape the next nine months. Is she fair-minded, a strict disciplinarian or a pushover?

Emily Lawson, chief executive of D.C. Prep, one of the District’s top charter schools, said her administrators spend extra time in classrooms at the start of the year, offering help when teachers struggle to set clear expectations or maintain control.

“We can make sure that they don’t get into a rut, which is really hard to get out of,” she said.

At Burroughs, setting boundaries was part of Harrod’s work Monday. Her voice never rose. But it sharpened when, in the middle of one activity, a boy and a girl — perhaps fearing cooties — refused to work together.

“That is what makes Ms. Harrod most upset, when we decide we are not going to participate,” she said. “We are not boys and girls in this classroom, we are people, and we work together. We are a team.”

Setting routines

But the focus remains largely on setting daily routines that allow classrooms to hum smoothly, leaving time and space for thinking and learning.

“Systems are major,” said Burroughs Principal Mary Weston, who traveled the school’s hallways Monday in a blur of troubleshooting, smiling motion.

Shortly before dismissal, Harrod introduced the homework system: a purple folder to serve as the one and only vehicle for transporting assignments and communiques between teachers and parents.

“You will have homework every single night, including on weekends,” she said, her students’ eyes widening.

The systems seem to work at Burroughs, as does its focus on project-based learning about science, technology and engineering. Students here made significant gains on standardized math and science tests last school year — a notable jump for a school that serves mostly poor families.

Enrollment is up, too, despite a proliferation of nearby charter schools that draw neighborhood kids.

The school's progress earned a visit from Gray and Henderson, who talked with students over lunch. Henderson praised the principal’s leadership and energy, the teachers’ expertise, the parents’ involvement.

“There is good stuff going on here,” Henderson said.

Shortly before 3:15 p.m., the principal’s voice crackled over the loudspeaker, offering congratulations on a smooth first day and “huge shout-outs to all the boys and girls who came to school ready to learn.” And then it was time, in Room 12, for the last routine of the afternoon: retrieving backpacks and lining up on blue tiles to exit the school together, Harrod leading the way.

“This has been a wonderful day. Lots and lots of instruction, lots and lots of procedures,” the teacher said. “It’s been a long day.”

Yessenia Aguilar, who was packing up her homework folder, disagreed. “It was very short,” she said. “Too short.”

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