It was the first day of school, and Superintendent Steven L. Walts's first place to be was at Quarterhorse Lane and Churchman Way in Woodbridge. Dressed in a dark suit for the trip to Westridge Elementary School, Walts waited for bus 73 on Tuesday with groggy parents, children with Barbie and Spider-Man backpacks, and reporters chronicling the moment.
He crouched down and talked to some kids, asking them all kinds of questions in an upbeat tone. "Good morning!" "Where do you go to school?" "Do you know who your teacher is?"
The children looked up, giving one-word answers, not exactly sure who the serious-looking man was. Parents, meanwhile, knew who Walts was and were pleasantly surprised by the occasion and especially by what they said was his genuineness.
It was the first time in nearly two decades that a new leader was at the helm of Prince William County schools on the first day of school. Walts, who was hired in the spring from the Greece, N.Y., school district, replaced Edward L. Kelly in July.
With the exception of hiring some of his New York colleagues to reorganize some administrative departments, so far Walts has made no major changes. Walts, 51, has said he intends to focus hard on early education and has indicated his interest in expanding all-day kindergarten to every school. He has also made it clear he wants to continue bolstering professional development for teachers and communication with parents.
On Tuesday, Walts began an effort to visit every county school in three months. The "82 schools in 82 days" campaign he has advertised is a promotional strategy built on what seems to be a genuine desire to get to know people, but also on political savvy, which he will need to charm people who think the School Board's decision to let Kelly go was unnecessary.
At Westridge, Walts greeted people with firm handshakes, looked them in the eye and went out of his way to introduce himself to every adult in the building -- teachers walking down the hall, secretaries answering phones, cafeteria workers making mashed potatoes, parent volunteers organizing books in the back of classrooms.
When he arrived at Westridge, located in an affluent community of well-appointed houses and townhouses, he was greeted outside by a bevy of people from the Parent Teacher Organization.
"We were so close to our superintendent. We have no fear. We e-mail our superintendent," Kye-Won Koko, the financial officer for the Westridge PTO, told Walts. Then, she poured him a cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee that the PTO had brought for parents.
PTO President Brian Anderson began telling Walts about how the organization wants to help other schools in the county that are less well-off.
"We want to give back. We have extra books that we don't know what to do with," Anderson said.
"That's a great initiative," Walts said. "Perhaps you should think about partnering with schools to help those in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. We already have eight children enrolled here from that devastation."
Parents treated the new superintendent in several ways, in some cases like another dad, in others, like a celebrity. One parent, Brenda Accorenero, walked away from a conversation with him and told a teacher in a hushed tone, while pumping her fists: "He's going to be good. He's going to be good."
At Westridge, Walts visited every classroom. With an animated, booming voice, he introduced himself by saying, "Good morning, ladies and gentlemen," as if he were about to take them on a tour. "Are you excited for school today?"
After visiting all the classrooms, it was off to the school gym. There Walts stood in a circle with the children while they tossed a rubber chicken and a rubber pig.
One down, 81 to go.