School's over, but bus rides remain

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and other nearby systems appear to have passed their first-day test with flying colors, even though two buses brought kids home two hours late.

The final students were dropped off just before 8 p.m. today by two separate buses, one from Oakhurst Elementary and one from Alexander Graham Middle. The district's last scheduled drop-offs were around 6.

No major problems were reported on the opening day of school for the 2008-09 academic year, although CMS Superintendent Peter Gorman said it's too early to take a bow.

"Until every child is home, we haven't done the job," Gorman said in a Monday evening news conference.

But there are signs that the biggest problem traditionally on the first day of school -- late buses on the evening runs -- might be less of a headache this year.

Buses from CMS' Central Learning Community, which has the largest number of schools and about half the system's magnet schools, reportedly finished their runs before 7 p.m. Monday. That was far ahead of last year's first-day performance.

Magnet school bus routes tend to run later than regular schools, because the routes are longer.

"Our grade so far is an incomplete," Gorman said in an answer to a TV newsman. "But I'd say we were heading for a solid B."

It was the same story for other nearby school systems, and for UNC Charlotte, which also started classes today.

The news was good -- a smooth start.

Earlier, Gorman had expressed concern about the afternoon bus routes.

"Afternoon's the bad one," he said during an early-afternoon visit to Crestdale Middle School in Matthews.

In recent years, some students have not arrived home until after 7 p.m. The transportation headaches tend to be at their worst for students attending magnet elementary schools, some of which have late (3:15 p.m.) dismissal and lengthy bus routes.

Some students go to different stops, such as child-care centers, in the afternoon. And delays at early-dismissal schools are amplified at schools with later schedules, as students wait for the buses that will take them home.

The school system said it hopes the trip home will be quicker and less eventful this year for students, since CMS filled all of its bus-driver jobs before the first day of school. That means all buses are running, and drivers had a chance to run their routes last week to gain experience.

In addition, the school system is in the process of installing GPS devices on its buses, so transportation officials will be able to tell parents exactly where the buses are.

"Many times in the opening days of school, parents want to know where the buses are, so they will have a better idea of what time to expect their children home," said Carol Stamper, head of transportation for CMS. "With the GPS devices, we'll be able to tell them."

Stamper said CMS will have the devices on all its buses by early November.

Gorman called today's school opening "the smoothest one yet" of the three years he's been in Charlotte.

He said the morning bus runs went smoothly, with the exception of a bus-car collision on West Trade Street and a radio station prank in which an adult boarded a Southwest Middle School bus.

It was the same story elsewhere in the Charlotte metro region.

By lunchtime today, Cabarrus County Schools Superintendent Barry Shepherd already had visited six schools and expected to visit more in the afternoon.

His lunch?

"A banana and chocolate milk on the road," he said.

Shepherd, former superintendent of the Elkin City Schools, was hired to replace Harold "Butch" Winkler, who retired in January. Although it was Shepherd's first time starting more than 30 schools at one time, he said everything had gone smoothly and all classrooms had certified staff on board.

He estimated the district's enrollment would hit close to 28,000 this week. State planners estimated the Cabarrus system would have 28,558 students this year. If that holds true, it would be more than 5 percent higher than last year's figure of 27,155.

Cox Mill Elementary, where Shepherd stopped during lunch, gained 130 new students since June because of new residential developments surrounding the school, Principal Phil Hull said.

In Mooresville, Principal Julie Morrow hugged and high-fived students as their parents dropped them off at the new Mooresville Intermediate School on N.C. 3. There, all fourth, fifth and sixth-graders have their very own Apple laptop computers, thanks to a donation by Mooresville-based Lowe's Cos. Inc.

"I think it's great, because they need to catch up with everybody else" around the world who already learn on computers, parent Theresa McConnell said.

Parent Tina Fleming said she hasn't been able to pry daughter Grayson, 8, away from her laptop since the fourth-grader received it last week.

"It's getting them prepared for what the world is expecting of them," she said.

What might have been the first school bus collision of the year happened about 6:30 a.m. on West Trade Street near Interstate 77. One injury was reported, but no students were hurt.

The driver of a compact car was injured when her vehicle was struck by the bus. She was taken by Medic to a hospital for treatment. None of the students aboard CMS Bus 1285, headed to Northwest School of the Arts, was hurt.

As is typical on the first day, some of the buses arrived late for their morning pick-ups.

Tyrone Hankston and his son, Xavier, were still waiting for the bus at their southwest Charlotte neighborhood off Shopton Road at 8:32 a.m. The bus was 14 minutes late, but they amused themselves by holding a mock swordfight with twigs.

"I figured they would be a little behind today, with all the changes and everything," Hankston said.

About a mile away in another Shopton Road neighborhood, Bernadette Koroma and her 7-year-old daughter, Femata, were waiting on a bus that was running seven minutes late. Femata's stop hadn't changed from last year, but her pickup time did, moving from 7:45 a.m. to 8:17 a.m., for the ride to Myers Park Traditional Elementary School.

"It's probably just because of the first day," Koroma said of the delay.

In Union County, one of the state's fastest-growing systems, two new schools opened today -- Stallings Elementary, on Stallings Road; and Sun Valley Elementary, next to Shiloh Elementary on Rogers Road.

Bill Breckenridge, longtime principal at Hemby Bridge Elementary, moved to the new Stallings school. He was replaced at Hemby Bridge by Casey Ball. The principal at Sun Valley Elementary is Patrice Parker.

While Shiloh and Sun Valley elementary schools are adjacent on Rogers Road, they offer different types of academic schedules. Shiloh is a year-round school, while Sun Valley offers a traditional schedule.

At Hickory High School in Catawba County, students began classes with a new dress code. The rules permit students only to wear certain colors of clothing. Pants must be khaki, navy or black. Shirts must be either white, garnet, gold, light gray, or pink. The dress code also requires dresses and shorts to be knee-length or longer, and all shirts must have collars.

In Catawba County, students are being bused to and from school under the eyes of video cameras. The Catawba County Schools have installed the cameras on the buses to help deal with possible discipline issues.

In Gaston County, police presence was obvious at Ashbrook High School, which had been threatened in recent weeks by a person posting messages on an electronic bulletin board -- and by sending e-mails. Authorities said over the weekend that the FBI had traced the messages to an Internet address in New Jersey, and that the messages were a hoax. But officials didn't take any chances, and they posted extra security at Ashbrook.

Several classrooms at Brookside Elementary School in Gastonia went without air conditioning for a few hours Monday morning, but school officials had the system running properly by 10:30 a.m.

Observer staff writers Eric Frazier, Joe Marusak and Gail Smith-Arrants contributed.

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