School year begins in D.C. and Montgomery County

Students at Eastern High School found balloons and a dance party Monday morning when they arrived for their first day of school. Students waited on the sidewalk on the bright, sunny morning to pick up their course schedules, and every senior at the Capitol Hill school received a crown.

The Class of 2015 will be the first to graduate from Eastern since it was restarted three years ago with a new principal, a new building, and a more rigorous academic program. Eastern came under federal mandate to improve because of consistently poor academic performance.

“I think Eastern is a different place than people have known it to be,” said Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who greeted students outside the school Monday morning. She called it “emblematic of the rebirth” of the city’s school system.

D.C.’s public schools opened their doors Monday to 47,000 students, an increase of approximately 2,000 from two years ago, something city officials believe is an indication of a system moving in the right direction as it competes with public charter schools for the city’s student population.

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Many D.C. public charter schools, which serve 44 percent of the public school students in the District , also had their first day Monday. Four new D.C. public charter schools are opening this fall, and seven traditional schools in the District were modernized during the summer.

In Montgomery County, the school year started with a projected record-high enrollment of more than 154,000 students and the rollout of a major technology initiative that is expected to bring 40,000 laptops and tablets into classrooms across the system in the coming months.

Fourth graders at Wilson Wims Elementary School in Clarksburg had their Chromebooks open Monday morning as they worked on a class mission statement for teacher Katie Shapot. The devices added to the excitement of a brand-new school year at a brand-new facility.

“They’re awesome,” said Sahasra Challa, 9, peering at her computer screen. “We’re so young, and we get to use a computer already.”

The school year is set to start in Prince George’s County on Tuesday. Northern Virginia schools open next week.

D.C. officials prepared for the new year with an annual “beautification day” on Saturday. About 5,000 volunteers painted banners, planted flowers, and organized bookshelves to welcome students to more than 100 traditional public schools. Henderson, along with Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and other District officials spent most of Monday touring schools, greeting bus drivers and observing classes.

They visited Phelps Architecture Construction and Engineering High School, where students demonstrated an electric car and a robot they built. In an engineering class, students had 20 minutes to build “fling machines” in teams using balloons, chopsticks, pipe cleaners and tape.

Gray said the class represents a new approach to career training in the city rather than the old style of “vocational education.”

The specialized, application-only high school is opening an engineering academy this year that builds on its existing curriculum. It is one of seven career academies that the school system is starting in six high schools to give students more relevant workforce training before graduation. Two charter schools also are opening career academies.

District officials said they are working to expand blended-learning programs — which combine computer-based learning with face-to-face instruction — to new schools this year. And District high school students should see more Advanced Placement classes. Middle schools students should see more advanced foreign language classes and other enrichment opportunities through music programs and more time for physical education.

Twenty-six D.C. public schools will offer an extended day of instruction, mirroring what some D.C. charters already do.

The District has allocated $5 million “to making schools more fun,” Henderson wrote to parents in a letter. That money, part of an initiative to improve student satisfaction, will go toward activities such as clubs, sports and field trips.

The welcome-back party on the front lawn of Eastern High was designed to entertain. A DJ kept the students moving and the Rambler, the school’s mascot, posed for pictures. The festivities were organized with help from a nonprofit called The Future Project, which encourages teens to pursue their aspirations.

“Hi ladies, welcome to school!” said Voncia Monchais, who works for the organization and is based at the school full-time. She danced with students and handed out Mardi Gras beads and bracelets.

Some teens are not excited about the first day of school, she said, “so we were like, let’s make it fun.”

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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