Baltimore prepares to welcome students
First day of school means painted classrooms, clean hallways — and no weeds
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.