Pomp and prom­ise on first day of school

New CEO Sonja San­telises kicks off tour at one of sev­eral merged schools

Baltimore Sun - - NEWS - By Erica L. Green erica.green@balt­sun.com twit­ter.com/Eri­caLG

Bal­ti­more schools CEO Sonja San­telises kicked off the new school year on Mon­day by hav­ing break­fast with stu­dents at John Ea­ger Howard Ele­men­tary School, where chil­dren were wel­comed back by school staff, po­lit­i­cal lead­ers and even African drum­mers.

“I love the first day of school,” San­telises said. “It al­ways shows the po­ten­tial of the sys­tem.”

Schools also opened Mon­day in Howard and Car­roll coun­ties. With a new su­per­in­ten­dent at the helm in Bal­ti­more, how­ever, the pomp of the an­nual “first-day tour” had a dif­fer­ent feel.

“It’s a re­minder that we have to start with what kids bring to the class­room, which, yes, in­cludes chal­lenges,” San­telises said.

“But this,” she said, mo­tion­ing to­ward a room of bounc­ing prekinder­gart­ners in crisp new uni­forms, car­toon char­ac­terthemed back­packs, fresh hair­cuts and beaded braids. “This is what they bring, too. We have to match that ex­cite­ment with op­por­tu­nity.”

School of­fi­cials said they chose John Ea­ger Howard as the start­ing point of the tour be­cause it rep­re­sents a dif­fi­cult but promis­ing un­der­tak­ing. The school is one of 14 in the city to start the year in shared or new space as the dis­trict’s $1 bil­lion plan to re­build and ren­o­vate school build­ings goes into high gear.

John Ea­ger Howard merged with West­side Ele­men­tary School this year. Both schools are sched­uled to move into a newly ren­o­vated build­ing next year. The merger added an ex­tra layer of un­cer­tainty for par­ents on the first day of classes, as fam­i­lies from both com­mu­ni­ties con­verged on the build­ing.

The merger dou­bled the stu­dent pop­u­la­tion to more than 400. Prin­ci­pal Ta­mara Han­son said she con­sid­ered it a per­fect dis­trac­tion from the anx­i­ety that comes with com­bin­ing two dis­tinct schools and stu­dent bod­ies.

“Any time you bring any two things to­gether, there’s go­ing to be reser­va­tions,” Sonja San­telises, CEO of Bal­ti­more schools, right, vis­its a pre-K class­room at John Ea­ger Howard Ele­men­tary on the first day of school. She also vis­ited Lil­lie May Car­roll Jack­son School, a char­ter school for girls, and Mer­gen­thaler Vo­ca­tional-Tech­ni­cal High School. she said. “But we’re ex­cited to bring what’s great about John Ea­ger Howard to this re­la­tion­ship.”

Han­son said she would fo­cus this year on build­ing pos­i­tive re­la­tion­ships. Over the sum­mer, 25 stu­dents from each school came to­gether to form a stu­dent am­bas­sador group to help that mis­sion.

“I just keep re­mind­ing ev­ery­one [to] fo­cus on the chil­dren,” Han­son said.

Kinder­gart­ner Dyu­mani Thomp­son al­ready knows what she wants to fo­cus on this year.

“I’m ex­cited that I’m go­ing to learn,” she said. “I want to build things.”

Par­ents ex­pressed cau­tious op­ti­mism about the merger.

Sap­rina Kennedy’s daugh­ter at­tended West­side last year. When she walked her daugh­ter to her fifth-grade class­room, she said, she was dis­heart­ened to see stu­dents seg­re­gated by school.

She was also dis­ap­pointed that her daugh­ter’s class had a sub­sti­tute teacher, while the class of mostly John Ea­ger Howard fifth-graders had their per­ma­nent teacher.

“They said they were com­ing to­gether, and they’re not to­gether,” Kennedy said. “I thought it was go­ing to bring more func­tion and unity to the school, so that don’t make sense.”

Iona Kess, whose grand­daugh­ter at­tended John Ea­ger Howard last year, said she was happy that the tem­po­rary build­ing was big­ger and brighter.

“I just hope they keep the same pro­grams, and keep the same fo­cus,” Kess said. “I have an open mind, but I’ll be watch­ing.”

San­telises also vis­ited Lil­lie May Car­roll Jack­son School, a char­ter school for girls that fo­cuses on ex­ploratory learn­ing, to high­light the dis­trict’s bur­geon­ing port­fo­lio of char­ter schools, and Mer­gen­thaler Vo­ca­tional-Tech­ni­cal High School, which has ca­reer and tech­nol­ogy ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams.

Among those who joined San­telises was state Sen. Cather­ine E. Pugh, the Demo­cratic nom­i­nee for mayor. She said she en­joyed watch­ing the city come to­gether to help pre­pare stu­dents for the first day of school.

“There should not be a child in the city who doesn’t have what they need,” Pugh said. “And to see this tran­si­tion is very ex­cit­ing.

“I’m ex­cited for their fu­tures.”


Cait­lyn Jes­sup, 4, has break­fast on her first day as a prekinder­gart­ner at John Ea­ger Howard Ele­men­tary School in Bal­ti­more.

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