COLUMBIA - Unfamiliar faces and surroundings lent a sense of nervousness to the hallways and classrooms as schools got started.
It was a soggy back to school for children on Thursday. But before opening up their books and binders, students took off their rain jackets and water-logged backpacks and sat down for introductions, exercise and even some jokes with their teachers.
Students, parents and teachers were unsure of what to expect, even if they'd done this a dozen times already. But nerves early in the morning gave way to new friendships by midday. And despite the inevitable hiccups that accompany the first day back, Lynn Barnett, the assistant superintendent for student support services, said the first day of Columbia Public Schools started smoothly.
There were 17,307 elementary and secondary school students beginning school on Thursday, 224 more than in 2007.
While morning rain prompted some parents to drive their kids to school instead of making them wait for the bus, the weather didn't interrupt any bus services or prevent any schools from opening on time, Barnett said.
"Our administrators know how to start school very, very well," Barnett said. "It seems we've had good starts for the last three or four years."
Late Wednesday afternoon, Lee Elementary School Principal Teresa VanDover wrapped up several days of staff meetings with some simple advice. "Go home," she said.
"I want smiling and rested teachers," VanDover told her colleagues.
But 23-year-old Annie Arnone knew she still had hours of work ahead of her. As a first-year teaching fellow at the downtown school, she wanted everything to be perfect for her 18 new third-graders.
In the end, she worked on her classroom until almost 9 p.m.
After a night of anxious dreams, she returned at 6 a.m. for the rainy first day of school. Rest would have to wait.
"That's not gonna happen," she said with a laugh, as she waited for her new class to arrive. "Maybe for veteran teachers, but not for newbies."
The brightly colored sign in the window of Arnone's modular classroom read "Casa de Arnone," a nod to one of the languages that would be heard in her classroom this fall.
"There are at least 19 other languages besides English spoken at this school," Arnone said.
Four of her 18 new students are Spanish speakers, one speaks Mandarin and another has only been in the U.S. for a year after his parents adopted him from Africa.
VanDover said approximately 10 percent of last year's students were Asian; another 10 percent were Hispanic. The number of students who are ELL, or English language learners, is increasing.
In some instances, VanDover said, children arriving at Lee are unable to communicate at all using words. In addition to English instruction, teachers strive to connect with those students using non-verbal communication.
"We teach using facial expression," VanDover said. "We teach using gestures."
Arnone began doing that Thursday as she taught her new third-graders how to request a bathroom break in American Sign Language, a strategy that has the added benefit of allowing her students to communicate without disrupting the class with noise.
She first learned the language from her aunt and uncle, who are deaf, and she had the opportunity to polish her skills further at a church camp in high school.
"I petitioned my high school to include sign language instruction, but they didn't want to recognize it because it wasn't a foreign language."
Arnone's persistence eventually won over the administrators, but budgetary concerns kept the class off of the school's schedule.
Beyond education, Arnone's other love is for the theater. She lit up when she recalled her first trip to see a Broadway musical and not surprisingly her college minor was design and technical theater.
"I really have a passion for integrating theater," Arnone said, relating her work with a Columbia youth theater company, Shakespeare for Kids, while at the same time holding up her right hand and demonstrating the sign language for "Shakespeare."
Just as VanDover encourages Lee's students to stretch their creative horizons with their projects for the school's Above and Beyond program, she actively supports her teachers' enthusiasm for stretching the boundaries of traditional teaching methods.
"We believe kids learn best through experience," VanDover said, describing the school's philosophy of active learning. "We believe that the arts are integral to education."
Less than an hour into the first class, Arnone put that philosophy to work: leading the kids through a series of stretching and relaxation exercises that she learned in the theater.
As the children stretched and wiggled their bodies along with their new teacher, the nervous faces disappeared and the quiet room was filled with giggles and smiles.
"If you're bored, the kids are bored," said Arnone. "I want to have fun, too."
- Michelle Peltier
Mill Creek Elementary
A bespectacled boy with a tan umbrella looked both ways before crossing the street because a crossing guard wasn't there to guide him.
Traffic was reduced to one lane as parents parked on Nifong Boulevard as they shepherded their children to meet their teachers. A car stalled in the drop-off zone, causing late students to be even later.
Mill Creek's school day officially starts at 8:45 a.m., but traffic and rain caused parents and students to hustle toward dry cover well after teachers began their classes.
The rain meant that fewer students walked to school, but the absence of a crossing guard on Nifong still left parents and Principal Mary Sue Gibson concerned.
Mill Creek's former long-time crossing guard retired from the job so Sgt. Timothy Moriarity of the Police Department's traffic unit has been searching for a replacement, preferably someone from the neighborhood near the school.
"Instead of getting just anybody," Moriarity said, "we decided to go with quality."
Moriarity said that someone from the traffic unit was set to fill in as crossing guard Thursday morning, but other traffic incidents got in the way. He said that in the future, a crossing guard will be at Mill Creek.
"This afternoon, if nothing else, I'll be out there," he said.
Mill Creek was well-prepared for the glitches, even calling in extra traffic controllers to help ease the gridlock. Parent Mark Carter summed up the problems simply: "It's just because it's the first day of school."
Gibson said that teachers delayed taking attendance to allow for what she called "first day gridlock."
Parent Candice Cobbins unexpectedly caused some of that gridlock when her car stalled after dropping off her daughter Deabreon.
- Cassandra Belek
The PA system rang with a message welcoming the students to their first day of school and announcing the start of the breakfast program at Parkade Elementary.
While some students and parents remained in the halls, searching for classrooms and saying goodbyes, others made their way to the cafeteria.
Standing in line at the register, kindergartner Carly Bradley held her carton of strawberry milk and smiled. She and her mother, Jennifer, were looking forward to eating breakfast together before school each day.
Every day, the cafeteria serves breakfast to students and their parents. Though breakfast costs a dollar for students and $1.35 for parents, qualified families are able to receive their breakfast for free. Parkade's kitchen manager Myrtle Mullinax said that Parkade is one of the schools that qualified for the free breakfast program.
Though the computers used as registers were seizing up, the lines never got too long. Holding their breakfasts, the Bradleys made their way to one of the long tables in the cafeteria to join those already eating.
Alex Vaughan, another kindergartner, chewed his cereal with relish, not breaking for even a minute as he mentioned wanting to learn to draw this year.
Each long table in Parkway's cafeteria was crowded with kids and parents pulling individual-sized containers of cereal and plastic spoons out of paper bags. Baseball hats and Disney princess backpacks lay discarded as the students dug into their bowls, gearing up to start their first day.
- Michelle Albert
First day, new start
Students starting school today were adjusting from the freedom of summer to hours spent at school desks and evenings full of homework.
Ariane Young, beginning sixth-grade at Smithton Middle School, was adjusting to a new country.
Last week she boarded a plane in Guyana, in northern South America, with her family and flew to St. Louis.
"We waited seven years to come here," her mother, Monica Young, said.
"It was a long process."
Monica Young and four of her five daughters joined the crowds of soon-to-be students buying school supplies this week, choosing from a colorful array of many products from different brands.
They moved here for their daughters, Monica said, to give them a new life and better education, and to be with her husband Joseph's parents, who have lived here in Columbia for 16 years.
Ariane's older sister, Justine, began eighth grade at West Junior High.
- Elizabeth Lucas
Blue Ridge Elementary
Teachers welcomed students and their parents with smiles and handed out personalized name tags in the school gym at Blue Ridge Elementary.
Some children gave shy smiles to their new teachers and sat quietly. Others wasted no time in getting reacquainted with their friends and began frolicking in the center of the gym. Hugs, kisses and high fives were exchanged as parents left their children to go back home or to get ready for work.
Among the adults standing around the room was Shayla Bentrop, who is part of MU's Teacher Development Program. A senior at MU, she has been volunteering at schools since she was a sophomore. She is one of three MU students assigned to Blue Ridge. She will help kindergarten teacher Jill Edwards around the classroom when needed.
Bentrop was put to work after 21 students walked in single file into their new classroom. The students were told to place their backpacks on the designated hooks - each marked by a name tag in the shape of a star.
"I love kindergarten. It's the best," Edwards said exuberantly.
Edwards welcomed the attentive students looking up at her. This is her third year teaching at Blue Ridge and her second year teaching kindergarten.
After explaining the class rules, she quickly took her students through a rendition of "Snip! Snap! Hands on your lap!" along with hand gestures.
Meanwhile, Bentrop organized school supplies in the background.
Bentrop said she felt lucky to be allowed to come on the first day of school, a day usually reserved for purely student-teacher interaction. She needs to take one more class before she can become certified to be a teacher.
- Wendy Narez
New Haven Elementary
Third-grader Amber Bohannon was marking her first year in Columbia at New Haven Elementary School.
"I am excited, but in some ways I am not excited because I miss my friends," Amber, 9, said about her former schoolmates in the northeast Missouri town of Kahoka. "But I like the place and the teachers, because they seem really nice."
Tracy Bohannon, 34, said her daughter "couldn't sleep well for the past couple of days just because of going to school and seeing new things."
As the Bohannons were sitting quietly on a bench in front of the principal's office observing the new environment, pupils in colorful clothes filed in for the first day. The faces of some, especially the youngest students, reflected a sense of uncertainty.
For staff members it was a hectic day filled with scurrying about to help kids and parents.
Principal Cindy Giovanini said the teachers had been preparing for the day throughout the summer by taking courses and doing workshops. One new addition this year is a ramp on the west side of the school for people with disabilities.
"I think we are ready to go," she said. "I am confident we are ready to go."
- Mohammed A. Salih
Frederick Douglass High School
Students at Frederick Douglass High School on North Providence Road had already filled the corridors at 7:45 a.m. on their first day of school.
"We are starting a school year, you see, and are very busy," Principal Brian Gaub said. "But so far today, we've had a very smooth start."
Named in honor of a runaway slave who later became a leading abolitionist speaker, Douglass High School runs several programs besides being a traditional school.
Its Independent Learning Program is offered in four sections - two in the morning and two in the afternoon - for students 16 years or older and requires a work/study component. Another program is built around a deli business that helps students earn a small salary while working on graduation credits.
In 2007, the school's dropout rate fell to 22.8 percent from 30.5 percent in 2006, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary School.
The total enrollment at the school rose to 191 in 2007 from 169 in 2006.
A formerly African-American school during the years of segregation, 57.9 percent of the students in the past school year were white, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary School.
- Sananda Sahoo
Beverly Borduin's gray umbrella hung forgotten on the chain-link fence around the playground at Grant Elementary School. For the school's fourth-year principal, some things were more important than keeping dry.
From the time the first car pulled up to the curb on Garth Avenue until two minutes before her first announcement of the year on the public address system, Borduin was outside, greeting children and parents. She opened the door of every car that arrived, helping passengers across the rainwater streaming down the street and called out hellos to students walking to school.
There are more than 330 children in kindergarten through fifth grade enrolled at Grant this year, and Borduin greeted most of them on first-name basis. The handful who temporarily slipped under the radar found themselves acquainted by the end of the day, as Borduin made her classroom visits.
By 11 a.m., she had stopped by each of the rooms once and was making her rounds once more, this time for longer visits. Borduin said the classroom visits, which last "sometimes 10, sometimes 30" minutes, allow her to take part in "learning what my children are learning."
As she walked down the tiled hall of the first floor late Thursday morning, Borduin stopped to check in with Carol Gosselin and her cafeteria staff. Gosselin has managed Grant's kitchen for six years, and said that despite a wiring problem in the kitchen that temporarily killed the cash register, it was an easy first day so far. She said all of the student numbers, which let children purchase their school lunches and breakfasts, were accounted for - a rare occurrence on opening day.
Under a new program at Grant, kindergartners and fifth-graders share the same lunch period. Eating together allows the younger children to navigate the cafeteria more easily, Gosselin said. The fifth-graders can take on new responsibilities in their final year of elementary school.
Students in the two grades are "already buddies," Borduin said, because they have shared recess together.
Upstairs, in room 203, school counselor Kate Weir was working with Peggy Klick's third- graders. She paired off the students and handed them an assignment. The interview exercise, in which each partner filled in the blank on such questions as "favorite subject" and "favorite color," was designed to help children become better listeners.
For Weir, one of the best things about the first day was all of the familiar faces.
"It feels like a homecoming," she said.
- Ivy Ashe