A burning question among many D.C. parents is: Why did the public school system decide to schedule opening day early this year? Parents have grumbled that the Board of Education's decision in the spring to switch opening day from the first Tuesday after Labor Day to the last Monday in August will ruin already scheduled vacation plans.

"I was on the committee working on the scheduling, and we thought we should [change] in the 2006-2007 school year because parents have already made plans for this summer," said Darlene Allen, president of the citywide PTA.

Chief Accountability Officer Meria J. Carstarphen said the calendar was changed to accommodate more teacher training days, preparing teachers for the introduction of new standards, curricula and textbooks this fall and a new method of assessing achievement in the spring.

The new schedule "will allow us to build in four days [of training] in the beginning of the year and four days in January," Carstarphen said. "We wanted to give teachers more time to learn about the assessment and students more time to work with it."

But Allen said parents who made end-of-summer vacation plans "won't be sending their kids to school until after Labor Day."

Schools Try for Fresh Start

D.C. school officials this year are trying to avoid a repeat of the disastrous opening day that occurred last year -- with missing textbooks, schools without permanent principals, classrooms without teachers and administrative glitches that left some high school students without class schedules.

This year, the school system is launching several new campaigns and partnering with city agencies to do everything from motivating parents to immunize their children to enlisting volunteers to get the buildings ready for the first day of class on Monday.

On Saturday, school leaders are inviting parents and community residents to the first citywide campaign aimed at sprucing up the schools. Beautification Day will be held from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. at all 147 D.C. public schools. The volunteers will be called on to perform such tasks as cleaning graffiti off doors and clearing weeds and trash from the grounds.

"We expect 1,000 volunteers to come," Superintendent Clifford B. Janey said at a recent news conference with Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). "I'll be out there with my wife and staff."

This summer, the school system spent $8 million -- $6 million of it from the city -- to repair windows, bathrooms, heating and cooling units, doors, roofs and walls to get the schools ready for the new year. The expenditure represents a tenfold increase from 2004.

On the academic side, Janey has identified several expectations for Day 1:

* All teachers will be assigned to classes.

* New learning standards will be distributed to all teachers.

* Textbooks will be distributed to all students.

* "Welcome Back" banners will be displayed in all schools.

* Scores from last spring's Stanford 9 standardized test will be displayed.

* The buildings will be clean and safe.

* Homework will be assigned.

"We have to move the conversation from how we open schools to what the schools need to do when they open," Janey said.

A national group also is seeking to raise the profile of opening day. A Chicago-based organization called the Black Star Project wants one million black men around the nation -- fathers, grandfathers, brothers, uncles -- to take a child to school.

"We are working to get men more actively, substantially and successfully involved in the social and developmental aspects of their children's lives," said Phillip Jackson, executive director of the project. Children whose fathers are involved in their lives, Jackson said, have higher standardized test scores, higher graduation rates and fewer instances of school suspensions and expulsions.

Abeo Anderson, a policy analyst for the Washington-based National Black Caucus of State Legislators, is the local coordinator of the campaign. She said she plans to introduce programs to keep fathers involved throughout the year. "We hope to have seminars, football games, barbecues and fun things fathers will feel comfortable being involved in," Anderson said. "I want to see the men step up."

Faster Repairs Ahead?

Teachers, principals and other staff members at the schools have long complained about faulty heaters that keep classrooms cold all winter, leaks that appear whenever it rains, chronically broken toilets and other problems that have lingered forever. The beleaguered facilities department this year is introducing a plan aimed at improving its response time to requests for repairs.

Cornell S. Brown, executive director of facilities management, said the schools will be divided into four regions.

Currently, tradespeople are dispatched from a central location, Brown said. Under the new plan, he said, each regional office will oversee about 35 schools. "I'll assign two plumbers to a set of schools. They'll rotate in for two to three days and knock down as many work orders as they can during that time."

Seeking Parental Links

Attempting to shed the school system's image as an adversary, school leaders are seeking to reach out to parents. Janey said the central office this year will be able to provide more timely announcements to parents through the introduction of a new automated phone tree.

Also, Chief Academic Officer Hilda L. Ortiz said her office plans this fall to offer training for parents on the system's new learning standards.