It was not how Michael Durso imagined his 10th year as principal at Springbrook High School would begin. But after a gang-related attack during the summer session thrust his Colesville area campus into the headlines, he knew that his first day of school would have to deal with more than just academics.
He would have to talk about gangs and safety and why parents didn't have to worry about sending their children to school yesterday. He would have to remind people that Springbrook is a safe campus, where fights and mayhem are rare occurrences. He would have to assure parents that nothing would distract from the business of educating students.
For many principals, the first day of school was about moving forward and dealing with the pressures ahead -- whether overcoming the shock of the gang-related stabbings in Montgomery County, helping students deal with the death of a popular student in Loudoun County or grappling with the threat of federal sanctions under the No Child Left Behind law in the District.
In Maryland, educators and high school freshmen face an additional challenge: The Class of 2009 will be the first required to pass statewide exams in algebra, biology, government and English to graduate. Statewide scores released last week showed that many students, particularly black and Hispanic students, still struggle to achieve passing marks. The achievement gap is not limited to Maryland; Northern Virginia school systems, most of which open next week, are also trying to raise the test scores of black and Hispanic students.
A patrol car parked in front of Springbrook, before and after classes yesterday, was the only sign of the early August violence that marred an otherwise peaceful summer school session. 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."
Many students seemed less concerned about the stabbings than about finding their classes and figuring out when they were scheduled for lunch. Others said they feel safer in the hallways than outside school.
Standing in the crowded cafeteria during their first lunch of the school year, junior Onyi Onungwa, 16, and three friends said they will take more precautions when they walk home from the school bus. When she is walking alone, Onungwa said, she plans to pull out her cell phone and call a friend. She said she will call her mother before she leaves school. On weekends, she said, her parents will take her everywhere, as they did this summer. But at Springbrook, she said, she doesn't have to worry.
Barbara Williams, who teaches science and whose son began his freshman year at Springbrook, said the stabbings "could have happened anywhere. Anywhere you have kids, there's a potential for something to happen."
Edward Clarke, director of school safety and security for Montgomery public schools, said, "Some people think this will define Springbrook, but Springbrook is going to be defined by how it moves forward after this."
Across the river from Montgomery, a campus in Loudoun County was trying to move forward after losing one of its own, a 17-year-old student killed Friday morning when he rode his bicycle into a truck at a road crossing on a trail near Hamilton.
Edgar T. Markley, principal of Broad Run High School in Ashburn, said that classmates remembered Ryan Bickel during the 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. But he said the educational mission would move ahead, providing its own form of therapy.
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 learning standards and a new standardized test this spring. But the chaos that marred some first days in the past was largely absent from yesterday's opening.
Except for a few glitches, such as faulty air conditioners that offered no relief from the 90-degree heat, opening day went fairly smoothly, school officials said.
"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."
In Anne Arundel County, one challenge facing educators is to show that Glen Burnie High School is not failing. Glen Burnie is one of three high schools in the county that did not demonstrate "adequate yearly progress" under No Child Left Behind because of the performance of special education students. Principal Sam Salamy said he expects that judgment to be overturned on appeal because of errors in how scores were coded.
Like schools across the country, Glen Burnie is required to demonstrate that all its students are reaching achievement targets set by the state under the federal law. Schools that fail to make adequate progress for several years in a row face consequences, the most drastic of which include being taken over by the state.
Complicating the situation at Glen Burnie, Salamy's staff this year includes 22 new teachers and four new assistant principals. Salamy is in his second year.
Although Glen Burnie isn't likely to turn out the highest SAT scores in the county any time soon, the school is making progress, officials say. The graduation rate has risen from about 65 percent a decade ago to 80 percent today. And the dropout rate went from 6 percent in 2004 to less than 2 percent in 2005, below the statewide goal of 3 percent.
Salamy insists on meeting with any student who wants to drop out. The meetings have taught him about the pressures that can drive a student from school. They have also given him a chance to persuade some students to stay.
"These are some of the nicest kids I've ever worked with," said Salamy, a former math teacher who grew up in College Park. "They really appreciate everything you do."
On the first day of school in Howard County, the focus was on maintaining high standards. Howard is known for performing well on standardized tests, and last school year, only one of its high schools, Hammond High, did not meet Maryland targets for 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 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."
Staff writers Daniel de Vise, V. Dion Haynes, Rosalind S. Helderman, Theola S. Labbe, Ylan Q. Mui and Nancy Trejos contributed to this report.