In Room 100 at the District's Ketcham Elementary School yesterday, teacher Tracy Johnson wasted no time telling the 25 fifth-graders what lay in store.
There would be no easing into the new school year, she said, instructing the students to craft eight sentences on what they did over the summer. "You're going to write a well-written paragraph, not a sloppy paragraph," she added.
And there would be homework on Day 1 that had better be turned in the next day. "I don't take excuses for homework or classroom behavior," Johnson said.
Whether it was about raising academic expectations or overcoming the shock of gang violence, the first day of school for many Washington area teachers and principals was about moving forward and dealing with pressures on multiple fronts.
In the District, where more than half the schools are on a federal watch list because of low test scores, teachers and students embarked on a year in which they will have to adjust to new math and English standards and curricula in every grade and a new standardized test this spring.
In Maryland, where many districts started classes yesterday, this year's high school freshmen will be the first class required to pass statewide exams in algebra, biology, government and English to receive a diploma. Statewide scores released last week showed many students, particularly black and Hispanic students, still struggling to achieve passing marks. Northern Virginia school districts, most of which open next week, also are trying to raise the test scores of black and Hispanic students.
Opening day in the District went fairly smoothly, school officials said, except for a few difficulties such as faulty air conditioners that offered no relief from the 90-degree heat. That was a contrast with some opening days in the past that were marred by problems such as absent bus drivers and students without class schedules.
"We've been calling every hour on the hour and haven't found any major issues," said Superintendent Clifford B. Janey, who toured six schools. "We want the first day to set the tone for the year. We're going to keep a Nelson Mandela-like focus on our core standards."
With the new math and language arts curricula in every grade, one of the biggest challenges that D.C. administrators faced was getting new textbooks in those subjects into each classroom. In previous years, the school system has been plagued by late deliveries of textbooks. Janey said that as of Friday, schools had received 95 percent of the books they ordered.
At Springbrook High School in Montgomery County, which was thrust into the headlines after a gang-related stabbing during summer school, the challenges facing Principal Michael Durso on opening day extended well beyond academics.
The incident "has made parents, teachers and students a little more aware and cautious,'' Durso said. "But no matter what, this doesn't distract from your previous goals of high achievement for all students."
Standing in the crowded cafeteria during their first lunch of the school year, Onyi Onungwa, 16, a junior, and three friends said they will be taking more precautions when they walk home from the school bus. When she's walking alone, Onungwa said, she plans to pull out her cell phone and call a friend. She said she would call her mother before she leaves school. On weekends, she said, her parents will take her everywhere, as they had been doing this summer. But at Springbrook, she said, she doesn't have to worry.
In Loudoun County, Broad Run High School was trying to move forward after losing one of its own -- a 17-year-old student who was killed Friday morning after riding his bicycle into a truck at a road crossing on a trail near Hamilton.
Edgar T. Markley, principal of the Ashburn school, said that classmates remembered Ryan Bickel during their daily minute of silence and that several students left their first classes to visit grief counselors. Some signed a memorial book set up alongside pictures of Bickel in a school entryway.
Markley said Bickel's death "took all the joy out of" what is normally an uplifting and invigorating time in the life of a school.
In Anne Arundel County, Glen Burnie High's principal was focused on challenging the idea that his school is failing. Glen Burnie is one of three high schools in the county that failed to make "adequate yearly progress" on test scores last year under the federal No Child Left Behind law because of the performance of special-education students. Schools that fail to reach benchmarks for several years in a row face sanctions.
Principal Sam Salamy said he expects that judgment to be overturned on appeal, because of errors in how student scores were coded.
Salamy said the school is making progress, noting that its dropout rate declined from 6 percent to less than 2 percent last year, in part because he insisted on meeting with any student who wanted to drop out. The meetings have taught him about the pressures that can drive a student away from school and also given him a chance to persuade some students to stay, he said.
In Howard County, the first day was also about high standards. Howard is known for consistently performing well on standardized tests and last year only one of its high schools, Hammond High, did not meet Maryland's targets for high school math.
Hammond Principal Sylvia S. Pattillo said the school fell short of the state's goals by a few points among special education students. She is starting an after-school tutoring program for freshmen this year and assigning special education teachers to work with instructors in regular classrooms.
"We know we can do it," Pattillo said. "Everybody's going to be accountable."
The District's Walker-Jones Elementary School in Northwest has failed to meet its federally mandated test-score benchmarks for three straight years. But the mood was upbeat as Principal Janette Johns-Gibson stopped to hug children in the halls and spoke excitedly of the changes she has made one month into the job: shortening lunch to add 45 more minutes of instruction time and reviving the school's PTA.
Johns-Gibson, 47, one of 44 new principals in the D.C. system, said she believes that those and other changes will result in higher test scores this year.
But she was clear in an early morning meeting with parents of new students that their help would be essential.
"I can't do it without you," Johns-Gibson told more than a dozen parents seated in the cafeteria after breakfast. "Give your children to us, let us nurture them, take care of them, let us make them a success," she said.
Staff writers Daniel de Vise, Rosalind S. Helderman, Theola S. Labbe, Ylan Q. Mui and Nancy Trejos contributed to this report.