The startled eighth-grade English students in Room 217 of Plum Point Middle School had a pop quiz on their first day of school, given by an unexpected teacher: state School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

"Who has an idea what a state superintendent does?" she asked.

No one knew. One boy yawned widely. Grasmick tried again.

"How many schools are there in the state of Maryland?" she said. "Who wants to guess?"

One boy in a red shirt yelled: "230!" Another cautiously suggested about 100.

"Well, there are 1,400," Grasmick informed them. "Do you see how special you are? I wanted to be here today."

So it went Tuesday morning as Grasmick toured the campus as classes resumed for Calvert County public school students.

Public schools in Charles and St. Mary's counties open for classes Monday. In Charles, the day will bring the opening of a new high school. In St. Mary's, it will mark the first academic year for a new superintendent.

The first day of school in Calvert coincided with the release of scores from the statewide high school assessment tests that will soon be a graduation requirement.

J. Kenneth Horsmon, Calvert County school superintendent, said those results -- which showed that one-third of students failed the algebra exam -- helped clarify why improving math instruction will be the school system's main priority this year.

"Our math scores are not promising, and I think we need to focus on them this year," Horsmon said, adding that school officials are looking for ways to teach math better and find additional class time to focus on the subject.

Jeff Walker, the principal of Plum Point Middle, said his school is experimenting with providing extra instruction time to students who need help with math. Instead of going to homeroom at 8 a.m., those students will study math.

"It will be like a seventh class for them," he said.

Another major initiative in Calvert this year is the introduction of ninth-grade academies to all four of the county's high schools. The academies, which began as a pilot program at Patuxent High the past two years, devote four teachers to clusters of about 100 students for the entire year.

"We want it to be a place where everybody knows your name," said Jack Smith, the system's deputy superintendent.

Crews have been working throughout the summer to finish two major construction projects at Appeal and Sunderland elementary schools.

Smith said he visited Appeal on Friday and had been worried that major renovations of the roof and other parts of the building would not be done before the first day of school.

"It looked like a construction area," he said Tuesday. "But now it's painted and clean and looks great."

Horsmon said most of a $5.3 million project to increase the capacity at Sunderland Elementary by 200 students is completed, although the final phase won't wind down until the end of this month. He said the project has helped ease overcrowding.

"I don't think we have any [schools] that are grossly over capacity now," he said. "Now we're just crowded."

Calvert County is moving toward construction of its 13th elementary school. The school system signed a contract last week to purchase a 22-acre parcel for the school in Barstow -- next to the College of Southern Maryland's new campus -- for $690,000, Horsmon said.

Another immediate challenge confronting the school system, Horsmon said, is filling the six to eight vacancies for special education teachers.

"There just simply aren't enough of them to go around," he said. "I think every school district in the state is experiencing difficulty finding special education teachers."

In Charles, Monday's return to classes will mark the opening of the county's first new school in a decade. Seven years in the making, North Point High School for Science, Technology and Industry will serve as a traditional neighborhood school and an application-only program with courses such as biotechnology, computer networking and culinary arts.

The $50 million building -- south of Bunker Hill Road on the western edge of Waldorf -- will start with 520 freshmen. They will be joined in the new building this year by a combined 440 seventh- and eighth-graders, who will move up each year to round out the upper grades.

Opening a school is not without logistical headaches. School officials are warning parents and students to expect delays for several weeks on Davis Road leading to the campus. One lane of the two-lane road will be under construction Monday, and roadwork is expected to continue into September.

With the inauguration of North Point, school administrators have given the former career and technology center in Pomfret a new name and a new mission. The Robert D. Stethem Educational Center will be home to alternative programs, such as those for students who take course credits at their own pace, pregnant teenagers, home-schoolers and students assigned to six-week stints away from their home high school to try to remedy disciplinary problems.

Stethem, the center's namesake, was a Navy diver and 1980 graduate of Thomas Stone High School who was killed during the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847 en route from Athens to Rome.

The new year brings longer school days for three additional kindergarten programs. Full-day kindergarten at Walter J. Mitchell, Mary H. Matula and Arthur Middleton elementary schools means only seven half-day programs remain in Charles. By the 2007-08 school year, all elementary schools in the county will be full time as required by state law.

Just days before school is set to begin, Charles officials were scrambling this week to fill eight full-time teaching positions. Five of those jobs are in the middle and high school mathematics departments.

"We're still interviewing, and we'll be interviewing up until the first day of school," said Katie O'Malley Simpson, spokeswoman for the schools. "I don't think we're any different than any other school system."

What appears to be different this year, at least in the school system's initial count, are enrollment projections. The 3 percent average annual increases in student population the county experienced between 2000 and 2004 seem to have slowed.

Last year, 26,026 students were enrolled in Charles County schools. School officials are projecting 26,485 students this year, a 1.1 percent increase. The official tally will not be available until the end of next month.

O'Malley Simpson attributed the apparent slowdown to a decision by the county commissioners to limit the number of new homes that can be built based on the amount of space available in public schools.

Teacher vacancies, test scores and new buildings and programs are all part of beginning the school year in Southern Maryland. But for some students on their first day of school, the main challenge was simply adjusting to their new role in the educational universe.

"What grade are you in?" state Superintendent Grasmick asked Monica Metha, 12, as she stood in the foyer of Plum Point Middle on Tuesday morning.

When Metha replied that she is in the seventh grade, her friend Jackie Tremblay, 13, looked aghast.

"Not anymore!" she exclaimed, adding that they are in the eighth grade.

Metha blushed and looked at her feet. Then the friends turned and headed down the hallway.

State school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick speaks to students at Plum Point Middle School on Tuesday as school began in Calvert County. Charles and St. Mary's schools open Monday.Plum Point students David Novy, from left, Monica Metha and Jackie Tremblay share a laugh with state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. The students are members of the school's audiovisual club.Jackie photographs Grasmick's visit for Plum Point's Web site.