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Parents and their children across St. Mary’s County met their teachers and visited their new classrooms this week during open houses in preparation of the first day of school today.

Teachers and principals welcomed the visitors with freshly decorated classrooms, sometimes offering advice to worried parents of some of the youngest students.

“The best thing a parent can do [on the first day of school] is give a kiss and a hug and say goodbye, and let us handle the rest,” kindergarten teacher Ellen Lewis said.

The Leonardtown Elementary School teacher’s only other advice for apprehensive parents ushering their little ones off to school was to send a small photo or token with their children to school, something that would remind them of Mom or Dad.

“It seems like the school year comes so quickly” after summer break, Lewis said. Still, she was ready to meet her new crop of 5-year-olds.

Mike Noe visited Lewis’ classroom Monday with his son, Chris.

“It’s great. The facility is beautiful and the teachers are wonderful,” the father said of the visit.

Chris was a bit nervous about starting a full day of kindergarten, his father said, but once he saw a box of building bricks and other toys in the room, his childhood instincts seemed to kick in.

“I know it’s good for him,” Mike Noe said.

On Tuesday at Esperanza Middle School’s open house, Alexis Ridgell and her mother, Joyce Ridgell, entered the school for the first time. The sixth-grade student said that she was nervous about some new things at middle school, including using lockers and changing classes every period.

“It’s a little overwhelming for her right now,” her mother said, adding that she is sure her daughter will do fine once she gets used to the new routines.

“I’m excited,” Alexis said after meeting some of her new teachers.

Lauren Silva is starting her second year in the Global and International Studies program at Leonardtown High School. She attended an orientation Monday for the program’s incoming freshmen to help explain to them what the GIS program offers.

“I like the program,” she said, adding that she told the ninth-graders “to stay on top of your work. Don’t let it surprise you.”

Teacher Denise Mandis said the GIS program had a record number of applications this year — more than 70 for 45 available freshman spots.

“It’s a school within a school,” she said. The program, like other academies in the county’s high schools, gives students a chance to attend multiple classes with the same cohort of students throughout high school.

Mandis said she enjoyed seeing the bonds develop between students in the program. “It’s genuine,” she said.

In addition to the GIS program, the school system offers science, technology, engineering and mathematics academies to select students from fourth to 12th grades. The STEM academies are held at Lexington Park Elementary, Spring Ridge Middle and Great Mills High.

Chopticon High School features the Academy of Finance to hone skills of students interested in business and finance.

The school system last spring opened its National Flight Academy, which offers flight simulation classes and related opportunities at the Dr. James A. Forrest Career and Technology Center.

Fairlead Academy, which served about 200 high school students last year deemed at risk of dropping out, will continue to expand its numbers this school year at two locations in the county, although the county commissioners delayed a request to fund a planned building expansion near Leonardtown High School.

The transportation department made changes to elementary bus stops this school year to save money and time by adhering more closely to bus policy.

The bus policy states elementary students may have to walk up to half a mile to a stop; high school and middle school students may have to walk up to a mile. There is still a procedure for parents to request changes to routes, but there must be extenuating circumstances for such exceptions, according to school officials.

Bus drivers are also operating under new rules in the name of safety that require buses to stay in the travel lane when picking up or dropping off students. No longer will they pull onto the shoulder as students board or exit, although they can pull over away from a bus stop to let other vehicles pass if it is deemed safe.

The school system has completed its transition to the new Common Core Curriculum, a framework that puts in place lessons across all grade levels that will align, at least to some degree, teaching in most states. Although students and parents may not see many big changes to school work, educators have said the new lessons rely more heavily on reading and in-depth writing across most subjects and are more rigorous.

Students will begin piloting new standardized tests associated with the curriculum next spring, with the expectation that the new tests will completely replace the Maryland School Assessments in the 2014-2015 school year.

Another component of education reform under way is a new teacher evaluation system, which includes student performance on tests as part of what determines a teacher’s job performance rating.

Catholic elementary and middle schools in the Archdiocese of Washington, including those in St. Mary’s County, open on Monday, Aug. 26.

Calvert public schools opened yesterday while Charles public schools will start the school year next Monday. All of Maryland public schools will be open for students by Aug. 27.

jyeatman@somdnews.com