Bal­ti­more pre­pares to wel­come stu­dents

First day of school means painted class­rooms, clean hall­ways — and no weeds

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Erica L. Green

With 72 hours left be­fore 84,000 Bal­ti­more stu­dents poured into the city’s schools for the start of the new school year to­day, all Keith Scrog­gins could think about was weeds creep­ing through cracks in side­walks.

“We just can’t have that, it’s just very un­sightly,” he said as he vis­ited schools through­out the dis­trict Fri­day.

To the av­er­age per­son, weedy side­walks might seem like a triv­ial fix­a­tion. Not so for the chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of Mary­land’s fourth-largest school sys­tem, whose large port­fo­lio in­cludes all dis­trict fa­cil­i­ties. To Scrog­gins, weeds sig­nal care­less­ness, a lack of at­ten­tion to de­tail — not the mes­sage he wanted to send on the first day of school.

Clean side­walks, and for that mat­ter man­i­cured grass and pruned bushes and trees, are the equiv­a­lent of rolling out a red car­pet for the city’s stu­dents, who re­turn to school amid a heat wave that closed 37 Bal­ti­more County schools with­out air con­di­tion­ing on Fri­day and again to­day.

Even more city schools lack air con­di­tion­ing — 76 of the roughly 170 — but dis­trict of­fi­cials said they had no plans to close them. The city doesn’t have a policy like the one re­cently ap­proved by the county to close un­cooled schools when the heat in­dex is fore­cast to be above 90 de­grees. In­stead, the decision to close schools is made on a case-by-case ba­sis.

The week­end be­fore the first day of school marks the cul­mi­na­tion of a sum­mer clean­ing process as crews fin­ish cut­ting grass, trim­ming bushes, mov­ing fur­ni­ture, paint­ing, strip­ping and wax­ing floors, stock­ing schools with bot­tled water.

The an­nual rou­tine comes at a price tag of at least $500,000, but for Scrog­gins and other dis­trict ad­min­is­tra­tors, the pride of wel­com­ing stu­dents back to pris­tine build­ings is price­less.

“It’s the big­gest time of the year for me,” Scrog­gins said. “The most im­por­tant thing is that schools look invit­ing, clean and like a place that par­ents want to send their kids

and keep them ex­cited about learning.”

Af­ter a tu­mul­tuous two years that re­sulted in the ouster of the last CEO, many con­sider the 2016-2017 aca­demic year a re­set for the dis­trict. There will be fa­mil­iar faces, yet new ap­proaches to ed­u­cat­ing the city’s chil­dren.

Sonja San­telises, who served for three years as the school sys­tem’s chief aca­demic of­fi­cer be­fore leav­ing in 2013, re­turned as the new schools CEO in July on a tide of good­will from teach­ers and prin­ci­pals — and par­ents hope­ful their chil­dren would be well served by the change in lead­er­ship.

The su­per­in­ten­dent has promised a clearer and more de­lib­er­ate vi­sion for the dis­trict that em­pha­sizes high ex­pec­ta­tions as well as the sup­port needed for stu­dents to achieve them.

San­telises said she ex­pects to see that foun­da­tion laid on Day 1 when she will visit schools and have break­fast with stu­dents.

“When I walk into class­rooms at this time of year, I try to look at things as if I were a stu­dent walk­ing in on the first day,” she said. “Does it look like a place where learning will be ex­cit­ing? Where I’ll be wel­come? Where I’ll want to spend time? Class­rooms need to be not only clean and well or­ga­nized, but set up to show kids that good things are go­ing to hap­pen here all year long.”

Among San­telises’ first de­ci­sions to im­prove the cli­mate was al­low­ing 30 school po­lice of­fi­cers back into schools. Of­fi­cers were re­moved from per­ma­nent as­sign­ment in schools af­ter leg­is­la­tion failed in the Gen­eral As­sem­bly that would have al­lowed them to carry their weapons in­side the build­ings.

The of­fi­cers will re­turn to schools un­armed, a move the school po­lice union said was met with mixed feel­ings by mem­bers of the force.

“Our of­fi­cers are ex­cited to re­build re­la­tion­ships with the stu­dents,” said Sgt. Clyde Boatwright, pres­i­dent of the union that rep­re­sents school po­lice of­fi­cers. “How­ever, we un­der­stand the sig­nif­i­cant risk to safety to ev­ery­one by not hav­ing all of the avail­able tools that we need to pro­vide a safe en­vi­ron­ment.”

Among the last-minute back-to-school scram­bling were un­fore­seen ex­penses from sum­mer bur­glar­ies and vandalism at some city schools. Scrog­gins said the school sys­tem ex­pe­ri­enced fewer of those this sum­mer.

Vi­o­letville Ele­men­tary/Mid­dle School, in South­west Bal­ti­more, was van­dal­ized ear­lier this month, with roughly $150,000 worth of dam­age that in­cluded ex­ten­sive flood­ing. Calver­ton Ele­men­tary/Mid­dle School, in West Bal­ti­more, was van­dal­ized on Wed­nes­day. Both schools will be up and run­ning by to­day, school of­fi­cials said.

By Fri­day, all sum­mer repair projects, in­clud­ing ceil­ing tiles, doors and locks, were due to be com­pleted. Trash pick-up continued Satur­day and Scrog­gins continued check­ing school grounds on Sun­day.

Be­fore the first bell rings this morn­ing, he’ll do one last check on the weeds.

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