Back to school: Nearly 1 million Md. students return, plus Alexandria and Arlington

“The first day always makes me nervous, even when I was a teacher,” incoming PGCPS CEO Monica Goldson told WTOP. “But this time, instead of focusing on just the kids that enter my class, I’m nervous for all the kids — wanting to make sure their first day is just as great as their last.” (WTOP/Melissa Howell)
Set to open its doors for the first time Tuesday is Snowden Farm Elementary. The new school, which has a capacity of more than 700 students, named for a local family that settled in the area in the 1840s and founded a dairy farm.
Set to open its doors for the first time Tuesday is Snowden Farm Elementary. The new school, which has a capacity of more than 700 students, named for a local family that settled in the area in the 1840s and founded a dairy farm. (Courtesy MCPS) (Courtesy Montgomery County Publi)
Cheerleaders welcome students at Quince Orchard High School in Montgomery County, Maryland’s largest school system. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
Students welcome signs for the 2020 school year at Quince Orchard High School, joined by cheerleaders, drummers, the Cougars mascot and MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein) (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
WTOP’s Neal Augenstein comes face-to-face with a cougar at Quince Orchard High School — and survives to tell the tale. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
A student of Quince Orchard High School walks to her first day of classes on Sept. 3. 2019. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
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Set to open its doors for the first time Tuesday is Snowden Farm Elementary. The new school, which has a capacity of more than 700 students, named for a local family that settled in the area in the 1840s and founded a dairy farm.

 

With Labor Day now in the rear view mirror, nearly a million students in Maryland are headed back to school — and more than half of them are in the D.C. area.

Some of the largest school districts in Maryland are in the D.C. area — including Montgomery County — where enrollment has hit a new peak this year, school officials say.

In Virginia, students in Arlington County and the city of Alexandria are also heading back to class Tuesday.

From new schools and renovation projects, to extending the school year and expanding access to mental health initiatives, here’s a look at what’s news in school districts returning Tuesday.

Montgomery County

In Montgomery County, Maryland’s largest school district, enrollment is projected to hit more than 164,000 students this year. That’s a record, according to Monifa McKnight, deputy superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools.

The school system hasn’t seen any dramatic jumps in enrollment, rather “consistent” growth of about 2,000 new students each year, McKnight told WTOP.

“When you think about a place like Montgomery County Public Schools, we very much have the reputation of this being a place where people want to come and bring their students,” she said.

The school system has had to build new schools to keep up with the steady uptick in student enrollment, particularly at the elementary level.

Set to open its doors for the first time Tuesday is Snowden Farm Elementary. The new school, which has a capacity of more than 700 students, was named for a local family that settled in the area in the 1840s and founded a dairy farm.

The nearly 92,000-square-foot building in Clarksburg Village, features what school officials call “flexible learning” spaces and state-of-the-art technology.

“The way that our students connect now in 2019 is very different from how they may have connected with the world a decade ago,” McKnight said. “We designed a school so that it is focused on the student and their environment, so that they are served in the best way.”

Several other schools have undergone multimillion-dollar renovations, or been expanded to keep up with growing student populations, according to school board documents.

At S. Christa McAuliffe Elementary School in Germantown, renovation projects have added 10 additional classrooms, including four new kindergarten rooms.

And at Ashburton Elementary School, four classrooms in addition to a modular building have been added to increase the school’s capacity.

At two Montgomery County schools, Tuesday is not actually the first day of schools. Under a new extended-year program rolling out for the first time at Arcola Elementary and Roscoe R. Nix Elementary — both in Silver Spring — classes started back up in July and will continue until June.

“They have already gone back to school and have started some of those initial routines of getting started up for the year,” McKnight said.

Under a 2016 executive order from Gov. Larry Hogan, school systems in Maryland cannot end their summer breaks before Labor Day, but Montgomery County was granted a waiver by the Maryland State Board of Education to move ahead with its extended-year program.

Another initiative this year for students at all levels is what the schools call the “Be Well 365” program, which aims to promote physical, mental, social and emotional well-being, McKnight said.

A related effort dealing with student safety will create behavioral threat assessment teams, made up of mental health professional and school resource officers, at each school

Over the summer, the Montgomery County Council approved a $2.7 billion for the school system — a 3.1% over the current operating budget.

Prince George’s County

In Prince George’s County, Monica Goldson is entering her first school year as permanent CEO of the state’s second-largest school system.

Goldson is a county native, the first to run the school system, so she is in charge of schools she once attended and taught in. Going into those schools is “super exciting,” she said, but added, “It feels that way when I go into any school and have the opportunity to see kids who are excited about learning, whose teachers have been there for a week-and-a-half preparing for them to enter the building and start learning from the very first day.”

She said the preliminary numbers show about 134,000 students will attend the county’s 207 schools — about on par with last year. In recent years, enrollment has been on an uptick, which Goldson attributed to teacher pay raises, “opportunities for our students [and] turning the corner around engaging our community and making corrections in areas where we need improvement.”

Among the new programs for the 2019-2020 year:

  • Full-day pre-K across the district in all the schools that have the space for it, “making sure that the foundation for our students is set.”
  • Mental health support in 45 schools, “so that students are prepared and ready to learn when they enter the classroom.” Goldson was particularly proud of this development, noting that it was inspired by students who spoke at a mental-health forum last year, asking for ways to break down the cultural stigma of seeking mental health support. “So I’m grateful to be able to push something out that our kids have been asking for.”
  • A digital immersion program that will let 4,500 students in kindergarten through third grade get “technology in their hand and hands-on support.”

Meanwhile, Goldson’s “blueprint” for the schools said that more than 30 schools across the county will undergo renovations in the next 10 years.

For her part, “I’ll continue to focus on accountability, transparency and community engagement,” Goldson said, adding that she’ll continue her Mornings with Monica series of public appearances, as well as a community-engagement seminar in October.

She also has a goal for every school in the system to have a functioning PTSA, “making sure that we get our parents involved.”

Arlington Public Schools

New buildings, programs, names, buses and traffic changes are coming to Arlington Public Schools this school year.

“We have five new programs and schools that we’re opening this fall,” APS spokesman Frank Bellavia told WTOP.

That includes Alice West Fleet Elementary School in Arlington Heights, The Heights building in Rosslyn will be home to H-B Woodlawn and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Program (formerly the Stratford Program), Dorothy Hamm Middle School (the school division’s sixth middle school) is taking over the building where H-B Woodlawn used to be and Drew Model Elementary School is becoming a full neighborhood school.

“We pulled the Montessori Program out of that building and we’ve moved it into the old Henry Elementary School building,” Bellavia said. “Now it will be Virginia’s first stand-alone, public K-5 Montessori school.”

By doing that, Bellavia said, APS has been able to open up their waiting list and add a couple hundred more seats to that building so that more students can access the Montessori Program.

And with Drew Model becoming a full neighborhood school, more elementary students in South Arlington get seats.

That’s important because Bellavia said APS is growing by about 800 students a year, with a current student population of a little over 28,000.

In response, APS is adding 15 buses to their fleet. Some are brand-new, some are replacing older buses.

With new schools, buses and students come traffic changes for drivers and commuters.

“If you commute into the Rosslyn area with H-B Woodlawn and the Shriver Program moving into The Heights building, you’re going to see an increase in school buses in that area,” Bellavia said.

There will also be students walking to get lunch or visit nearby stores.

Where H-B Woodlawn used to be, Dorothy Hamm, residents were accustomed to seeing buses drop off students, but now that Dorothy Hamm is a neighborhood middle school, there will be a lot more kids walking and riding bikes.

The same goes for the area around Alice West Fleet Elementary, next to Jefferson Middle School, particularly because Fleet starts at 9 a.m.

“You’ll have the elementary kids coming after the middle school” classes have started, Bellavia said.

Drew Model will also see an increase in children walking.

As such, pedestrian safety precautions have been boosted in the areas that APS thinks they need it.

“We’ve worked with the county to install high-visibility crosswalks at Lorcom Lane and Vacation Lane,” Bellavia said. “Crews have been building bumpouts (curb extensions) and high-visibility crosswalks at Military Road and Vacation Lane, and that will reduce crossing distance for students.”

“We’ve also added ‘See Me‘ flags at Westover and those are just to alert drivers that there are students in the area,” he added.

One big change has come to Old Dominion Drive.

“We’re putting a traffic light at Old Dominion right where Dorothy Hamm Middle School is. There’s going to be a new loop that comes through the school and comes up onto Old Dominion Drive,” Bellavia explained. “That will be coming in the fall. Motorists driving through that area will notice that.”

There will also be an interim superintendent since Patrick Murphy announced his retirement.

Cintia Johnson was appointed interim superintendent by the school board. Johnson has been with the school system for over 30 years.

And last but not least, Washington-Lee High School was renamed Washington-Liberty High School in July.

There are more than 28,000 students enrolled in grades K-12.

Alexandria City Public Schools

A music program from the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra is expanding to the Patrick Henry K-8 school starting in September, ACPS said in a news release.

The Sympatico program will hold before and after school sessions Monday through Thursday.

This will include a choral ensemble for third through eighth grade, with an Orff instrument ensemble, and a mixed strings, winds and percussion ensemble for students in fourth through eighth grades.

The program is free and there are no prerequisites to enroll.

The school board approved its 2020 budget in June.

During the meeting, 20 custodial positions were restored and 10 were outsourced.

There are more than 15,700 students in grades K-12 in Alexandria City Public Schools.

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