Northern Virginia schools opened yesterday, the usual shakedown cruise of bus schedules and class schedules. But for at least four people who went back to school, the first day carried an extra measure of adventure.
In Alexandria, there was the newly hired principal on the first day of her mission to remake a troubled elementary school. In Fairfax County, there was the newly appointed superintendent from a small Maryland district visiting his schools in Virginia's largest. In Loudoun County, there was the tech employee-turned-teacher, facing his freshmen for the first time. In Prince William County, there was the 11th-grader starting over, by choice, at his third high school.
In Search of Achievement
Lucretia Jackson, the new principal of Maury Elementary School, peeked into the kindergarten classroom at 9:30 a.m. to see the teacher, Beth Milton, reviewing alphabet sounds. Pushing reading so hard, so early might seem extreme, but Jackson was hired to change Maury, and she was pleased.
Although it sits in one of Alexandria's most expensive neighborhoods, Maury has the lowest test scores and the highest percentage of low-income children in the city, where an estimated 10,700 students returned to 18 schools yesterday. Some former Maury parents took advantage of the federal No Child Left Behind law to transfer their children to schools with higher scores. Jackson, a principal with a string of successes, was brought in to turn things around.
Dressed in bright welcome-back shades of orange, purple and hot pink, Jackson visited each classroom, demonstrating as she went that a school in trouble is a resource magnet. Much of the school had new carpet, new tile walls and new equipment. There was a special room and team of teachers for children with reading problems, and another room and team for those with math problems, as well as several other specialists in a school of only 140 students.
On her rounds, Jackson ran into Superintendent Rebecca L. Perry, who was making her own inspection. "I feel great," Jackson told her. "Learning is already going on."
In a room full of fifth-graders, Jackson displayed her technique for winning the allegiance of emerging adolescents. When a student addressed her improperly, she coaxed a "Yes, Miss Jackson" from the girl instead, then patted her on the back.
In Mara Mellody's fourth-grade class, Jackson told the students: "I like the way you are listening to your teacher. You have a great teacher. Be nice to her."
In the kindergarten class, Milton had reached "H" for "house." "Huh, huh, huh," she said, aspirating the consonant.
"That's an air sound again," a girl said.
"That's right!" Milton said, and Jackson smiled.
Among the students in a ring at Milton's feet was Matias Hendi. As his parents left him at school in the morning, they said they had no plans to transfer him. "Some people say they know the school is bad," Silvia Hendi said, "and they haven't ever been inside."
-- Jay Mathews
New Man on the Block
At Fairfax County's Floris Elementary School, sixth-grader Amber Scholl and her friends sized up the new guy.
"He's a lot taller than I expected," Amber, 11, said, popping a doughnut hole in her mouth. "I thought he was going to hit the ceiling."
"I thought he was going to be more serious," 10-year-old Adam Smith chimed in.
Mahlia Hensel, 11, decided that he looked more like a football player than someone you'd find in a school. "He didn't seem nervous," she said. "He seems funny."
The kids, all officers in the school's Student Council Association, had just met the most noticeable newcomer in the Fairfax school system: Superintendent Jack D. Dale, height 6 feet 5. And although they were possibly as excited about the plate of cinnamon scones and doughnuts in the main office as they were about meeting Dale, the verdict was positive.
"I think he'll do a great job," said Dawit Solomon, 11. "He's a nice person."
Dale, 55, hired from Frederick County in May to head the region's largest school system, spent his first "first day of school" meeting principals, teachers and a few of the roughly 166,000 students who started class yesterday. He went to a high school, a middle school and three elementary schools, asking questions about academics, athletics and logistics.
At Centreville High School in Clifton, Dale visited a class for autistic students. At Floris, in Herndon, he popped in on a Japanese immersion class, where a student greeted him with Konnichiwa -- hello. He poked his head into orchestra class and math classes and school cafeterias and gymnasiums.
More than one principal introduced him as "the big boss of the whole school system."
Amber, the new president of the Floris Student Council Association, said she figures Dale's job is a lot like hers, just bigger. "He's like the president of all the schools," she said.
When the two met, Dale congratulated her on her new position. "What are you going to do, Miss President?" he asked.
"Be a good president," Amber said. "I'll think of something."
-- Maria Glod
Fresh School, Clean Slate
It was the first day of high school for Nanna Onwuka -- for the third time.
For his freshman year, the 16-year-old attended school in Richmond. In 10th grade, his family moved, and he spent a year at Brentsville District High School in Prince William County. This year, the family stayed put but Nanna moved, on his own, to Prince William's new western high school, Battlefield High School.
Battlefield was among two new high schools and three elementary schools in Prince William, bringing the total to 80 for an estimated 65,700 students.
When the county opens high schools, juniors are usually given the option of staying at their old school, with familiar teachers and friends. At Battlefield, 224 hardy juniors out of a student body of about 1,120 chose to be new students all over again.
"Mostly, I wanted to come here because everyone is a new person," Nanna said.
Nanna's former high school is one of the county's smallest high schools and has traditionally served a more rural, less transient population. As growth reaches that end of the county, more new faces are appearing. But Nanna sensed that at Brentsville, no bigger than Battlefield but more closely knit, "everyone already knew each other."
"I thought about staying," Nanna said. "But then I thought about what this school could do for me."
With a new reputation to forge, he plans to run for class president and join the model United Nations club. He wouldn't have imagined doing either of those at his old school.
"At Brentsville," he said, "I just wouldn't have been able to meet enough people to run for class president."
-- Christina A. Samuels
A Chance to Shape Minds
David Quirin gave up a lot to stand in front of 30 desks at Sterling's Potomac Falls High School for the first time and say loudly, "Everyone, look at your schedule! Does everyone have 'Mr. Q' written down for this period?"
His evenings, for instance. For 10 years, Quirin, 34, worked in the tech industry, most recently at a company at which he trained military medical personnel to use health care software. When work was over, it was over.
As a ninth-grade English teacher, Quirin's evenings will be spent coaching golf, going to after-school activities and planning lessons. He'll also be attending classes once a week at Shenandoah University to turn his provisional teaching license into the real thing.
He's a little apprehensive about the restroom situation (he can't take breaks whenever he wants anymore) and his late lunch (he's on C period lunch, which means waiting until 1 p.m. every day).
Then there's the little matter of his income, which will be cut in half.
In exchange, though, he gets this: Thirty high school freshmen carefully writing their goals for the year on notecards with colored markers, because Mr. Q told them to.
They say: Make the honor roll. Play on the basketball team. Get ready for nursing school.
"It's not that I dreaded getting up in the morning and going every day" to the old job, Quirin said. But "the people I worked with, none of them ever said, 'You really made a difference in my life.' "
People said that kind of thing to Quirin's wife, Michelle, a former English teacher at Potomac Falls and now an assistant principal at nearby Dominion High. "She gets so much satisfaction from it. It almost makes you jealous," he said.
So Quirin left his software company at the end of July and two weeks later started training to teach English, his college major, in ninth grade, the year of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Of Mice and Men." His students were among 44,715 who were starting the school year in Loudoun, a rapidly growing county that opened three new schools to accommodate nearly 4,000 additional students.
As his first class ended, Quirin set some goals of his own: to help his students see situations from new perspectives, to create a safe learning environment for them.
"I want you to make a difference at this school," the freshman teacher told his first students.
-- Rosalind S. Helderman