Ann Ipsen thought she was prepared for this day.
Three years ago, she stopped by an information fair at Alexandria's Maury Elementary School with 2-year-old son William in tow and wondered why so few of her neighbors were sending their children to the local school.
Maury's school population had dropped after several years of low test scores. Many of those who left were middle-class families like Ipsen's who live on the streets closest to the school.
So Ipsen launched a Web site to encourage her neighbors to return and started attending PTA meetings, even though her children were too young for school.
Yesterday, she said her efforts paid off, as 5-year-old William Ipsen joined others from his neighborhood for their first day at Maury.
Ipsen, who by now knows Maury well, said she was calm as she got him ready. With husband Peter, she dressed William in his Maury school uniform -- a powder-blue shirt and navy-blue shorts. They got his new belt looped around his waist ("I can do it!" he cried out as Peter stooped to help).
There was mild chaos, but only smiles, as the Ipsens trooped down the sunny sidewalk to school. Five-month-old Evelyn snoozed over Ann's shoulder. Thomas, age 4, buzzed around, showing off a toy that somehow mutated from a robot to a motorcycle. The Ipsens' enormous black dog, Shadow, leaped at the end of his leash. William skipped ahead to meet up with friends, breaking into a flat-out run as they got close.
But then the time finally came. William's teacher stood at the front of a cafeteria packed with children, reading the names of her class one by one. When his name was called, William slid off a stool and began the long trot to the front of the room, as friends clapped and called out, "Go, William!"
At that moment, Ipsen's eyes filled. She looked away. Her face turned red. Another mother hastened over to give her an understanding hug.
"Everyone says it," she said afterward. "When they're toddlers, some days it seems like it'll go on forever. But all of a sudden, you're here. It's real. He's a big boy now."
-- Rosalind S. Helderman
A couple of months ago, Felix Herrera, a U.S. Army staff sergeant, was in a Humvee in northern Iraq, shutting down the city after a sniper had fired on U.S. soldiers there.
"I remember sitting there thinking how I would be better off teaching, sitting in the classroom," said Herrera, 34, a reservist on active duty who taught in Arlington County middle schools for more than a decade until he was sent to Afghanistan in 2002 and then to Iraq last year.
But when he finished his tour in late July and returned to Arlington, he learned that the district had assigned him to teach in an elementary school, something he'd never considered.
He knew how to relate to middle-schoolers -- treat them like adults, talk to them in a straightforward, non-patronizing way. But the prospect of teaching little kids was, he said, more frightening than the idea of going to Iraq.
"You always wonder, are the kids going to like you, or are you going to like the kids, or are they going to start crying," he said. "As soon as they told me elementary school, I was like, 'Maybe the 416th will need one more soldier over there right now.' "
Instead, he stood yesterday in a neatly tucked maroon polo shirt and slacks, before a classroom full of fifth-graders at Francis Scott Key Elementary School, a dual English-Spanish school. Herrera, who immigrated to Arlington from El Salvador when he was 16, will coach students who are learning English as a second language.
"Good morning," he said brightly.
A smattering of voices mumbled back. Herrera winced, as if someone had punched him in the side.
"Good morning!" he said again, more forcefully, and this time the class put some gut into it.
"Okay!" he said, and then told them how things work with him. "I get my energy from the students," he said. "If you don't give me your energy, it's going to be boring."
Then he told them a little bit about himself. When he said he was from El Salvador, a girl beamed and hissed, "Yesssss!" -- she was from there, too. When he said he'd been in the Army, a boy raised his hand and said his uncle had been in Iraq for two years, and Herrera promised to talk more about it with him later. The kids didn't seem bored.
-- Tara Bahrampour
Prince William County School Superintendent Steven L. Walts rode the yellow bus, whistled on demand and, in a frightening moment, was nearly pelted with a rubber pig in gym class.
Yesterday was the day that Walts, 51, had been anticipating with excitement -- and trepidation -- since his appointment this spring as the county's first new school superintendent in 18 years. Walts, who replaced the popular Edward L. Kelly, was very much game for the eye-to-eye handshakes, classroom observations and impromptu meetings with parents. For Walts, who was most recently the superintendent of the Greece, N.Y., school system, the size and diversity of Prince William's schools stuck out the most.
The day began at Quarterhorse Lane and Churchman Way in Woodbridge, where he waited for bus 73 to pick him up on his way to Westridge Elementary School. Dressed in a dark suit, Walts crouched down to talk to some kids. "So, how was your summer? Did you go to the pool? I'm the school superintendent. I help with all the schools," he said. The children stood nodding and smiling at the important-looking man.
Finally, the bus rolled up, and driver Stephanie Detwiler opened the doors. During the brief ride, Walts took a seat next to Tiffany Engen, 10, and, amid the laughter and bumps, the two talked about Tiffany's recent family move from Washington state. Walts was encouraging and told her, "You're going to make lots of friends."
When the bus got to Westridge, he was greeted outside by parents. "I've read up on you," said Donna Boykin, who told him she recently transferred her kids from private school.
Then, he made his way inside, visiting each classroom and teacher quietly or quickly. When he went into a fifth-grade class, the schools chief was put on the spot by 11-year-old Mike Amspoker. "Will you whistle me a tune?" he asked. Without hesitation, Walts pursed his lips and began tooting softly.
-- Ian Shapira
It was just before 11 a.m. when Danielle Bennett spotted her friend Chantal Jones amid the crush of teenagers that filled the hallway at Fairfax County's Westfield High School.
Bennett, 16, had learned that her Advanced Placement literature teacher planned to assign about 50 pages of reading each night, in addition to journal entries. Her journalism teacher reminded her that deadlines for the first edition of the school newspaper, the Watchdog -- of which she's co-editor in chief -- are just weeks away. And she hadn't even started her AP chemistry, government and calculus classes.
But as the friends hugged and compared class schedules, it wasn't the looming academic pressures of their senior year that made them a little nervous.
"I have to go to lunch right now," Jones, 17, said with a hint of anxiety.
Bennett responded with a sympathetic nod.
"The first day, lunch is always the worst," she said.
The potential pitfalls, Bennett explained, arise if you arrive at the cafeteria to find that none of your close friends shares the same lunch period. Or if your friends have staked out a table and there's no room left.
"I'm a pretty stable person, but if I don't have someone to sit with, I'll freak out," she said.
Bennett said the year eventually will bring some weightier issues. But yesterday was about starting classes and catching up with longtime friends.
By day's end, one small worry was resolved.
When it was Bennett's turn for lunch, she settled into a booth with several friends, including Bryan Altenhaus, 17, who was a little disappointed when Bennett's lunch bag -- unlike last year -- didn't include candy.
"No candy today. I told my mom not to pack it," Bennett said.
"Now that you know I'm in your lunch," Altenhaus said, "you can start packing it again."
-- Maria Glod