Time again to hit the books

Monday brought a smooth first day of school for tens of thousands of kids across the Charlotte region, although Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools bused its last kids home two hours late and traffic snarled around several schools.

While students in South Carolina and private schools have been trickling back for about a week, Monday's N.C. opening brought a surge of new schools, new leaders and new learning styles in this fast-growing region.

At least nine new schools opened in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties.

In southern Mecklenburg, twin teachers Amy Earley and Becky Earley caused double-takes in the hallways at new Polo Ridge Elementary.

After seeing one of the first-grade teachers go by with her students – and then the other – Robert Avossa, a CMS area superintendent, checked with Principal Patricia Riska just to make sure he wasn't seeing the same person.

Other southern Mecklenburg elementary schools debuting Monday got off to a smooth start, Avossa said. Kids seemed to like the stairs at Ballantyne Elementary, a novelty as one of only a handful of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Scools with three floors

The new Mooresville Intermediate School opened with Apple laptops for each fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grader, donated by Mooresville-based Lowe's. Mooresville High students also have laptops to take to and from school each day because of the home-improvement retailer.

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.

On the road

Late buses traditionally create some of the biggest headaches in sprawling CMS, which runs more than 1,200 buses, and Monday was no exception.

Two buses – one from Oakhurst Elementary, one from Alexander Graham Middle – dropped off their last students just before 8 p.m., though the schedule called for all CMS runs to be done by 6.

This year CMS is adding GPS locater devices to buses, which helped transportation officials keep track of where the stragglers were. The district expects to have the devices on all buses by November.

Although Superintendent Peter Gorman didn't have statistics on late buses, he said at an evening news briefing that there appeared to be fewer than the previous two years he's been in Charlotte. “It went remarkably well,” he said of the first day overall.

Morning runs went relatively smoothly, despite a new system requiring many students to walk further to their stops.

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.

Also marring the morning runs: Three minor bus wrecks – no students were hurt – and a radio station that sent an adult to board a middle-school bus as part of an on-air prank.

Watching growth

Educators around the region were keeping an eye on how many students showed up, and where.

CMS expects almost 136,000 students by the official tally in September. Gorman said the district is on track to meet that, with students continuing to enroll during the first couple of weeks.

When Gorman visited Carmel Middle in south Charlotte, he learned it had 45 more sixth-graders than expected.

He marveled that so many people miss the barrage of “register early” messages from schools and the media. “At every school we've had people show up and say, ‘I'm here to register my child.'”

Barry Shepherd, new superintendent of Cabarrus County Schools, spent Monday touring a district that's expecting up to 1,400 more students this year, about 5 percent growth. Cox Mill Elementary, where Shepherd stopped during lunch, gained 130 new students since June because of new developments surrounding the school, Principal Phil Hull said.

Shepherd, former superintendent of Elkin City Schools, said it was his first time starting more than 30 schools at one time. He said everything went smoothly and all classrooms had certified staff on board.

CMS, which employs about 10,000 instructors, had only 18 classrooms without teachers lined up Monday, Gorman said.

More trends

Monday brought a new dress code at Hickory High: Everyone was supposed to wear polo shirts and khaki pants in a handful of colors. About 90 percent came properly attired, and the atmosphere seemed calmer than usual, said Superintendent Ric Vandett. “It's been just a nice beginning to another school year.”

Middle and high-school students at CMS's new Military and Global Leadership Academy wore uniforms. Students from around the county chose the school, formerly Marie G. Davis Middle School, because of its emphasis on leadership and foreign languages.

While opening day went smoothly, those responsible for keeping schools safe couldn't relax completely.

Two CMS students were shot to death before school started last week. At Harding High, where 15-year-old William Adams would have been a sophomore, counselors were available to talk to students upset over his death.

Bud Cesena, head of CMS law enforcement, said officials met last week to make sure the two unrelated shootings were not connected to schools, fellow students or anything else that would cause violence to spill over into Monday's start of classes.

Gorman and Cesena said there were no incidents of violence or weapons at any CMS school.

In Gaston County, police presence was obvious at Ashbrook High, which had been threatened in recent weeks by a person posting messages on an electronic bulletin board 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.

Staff writers Eric Frazier, Joe Marusak, Hannah Mitchell, Celeste Smith and Gail Smith-Arrants contributed.