Quianna Day sat next to her father in the Jefferson-Houston cafeteria, staring at a carton of orange juice. She closed her eyes and put her head on the table. It was her first day of school, and she wasn't sure that she was ready.
"Remember what I told you," said James Connors, her father. "You've got to be big today."
Quianna was wearing a shirt that said "Daddy's Girl" and enough glitter to make her shine under the fluorescent lights in the ceiling of the cafeteria. She raised her head from the table and looked around, and then she looked at her father.
"She's a little nervous right now," he said. "But she's ready. We've been talking about this for a week."
Tuesday was a big day for Quianna and for all the students, parents, teachers and staff at Alexandria City Public Schools.
"It's my first day of school too," said Annette Shupe, who was named as Jefferson-Houston's new principal in June. She was excited about the upcoming school year, and energetic about the first day of classes. "This is the day that makes us want to do it all over again."
As students filtered into the elementary school, parents hugged their kids goodbye before being whisked off to the classes. The school, which was built in 1970, has a series of pods in which six classes revolve around a central access point.
"In some ways it's bad because of the noise but in other ways it's good," said Marcia de Diaz, a special education paraprofessional. "If you need help, you can always call on another teacher who is just a few feet away."
One student whom Diaz and Jamey Bruning, the special education teacher at Jefferson-Houston, greeted was Estiven Catalan. He will be in their class this year, and he will come with a special challenge: He does not speak English.
"Zapatos nuevos?" Diaz asked Estivan, pointing to his new shoes. The boy nodded.
AT GEORGE WASHINGTON Middle School, parents enjoyed coffee in the cafeteria while students reunited with friends they hadn't seen over the summer. Some students weren't sure where to go, and several retired teachers volunteered their time to be stationed strategically to help students find their way.
"It's great to see all the smiles," said School Board member Melissa Luby, who was there on the first day of school to meet members of the parent-teacher organization and school staff. "So far, everything looks great."
In the central office, Principal Grave Taylor pointed toward a poster unveiling the school's new "Prexie Pride campaign."
"It's a positive approach to student responsibility," Taylor said. "We're really excited about this."
For Taylor, the first day of school this year seemed to be going better than previous years.
"I've seen a lot more parents here this morning than in previous years," she said. "And the teachers, who got here very early this morning, are very excited to be here today."
AT T.C. WILLIAMS High School, Principal John Porter was busy greeting teachers, staff and students whom he had not seen over the summer break. Porter has been at the school 21 years, and he seems to know everything about everybody — asking about relatives who've been married or experienced loss.
"You're getting old," he teases former students who had returned to the school to see Ed Cannon, a popular English teacher.
The school is in the midst of a $97 million project to build a new school and demolish the old one. This year will be the second to last year of operations in the 1960s-era building, and Porter's last year as principal. Next year, he plans to join the central administration as an assistant superintendent.
"Many of the classes are incorporating the construction into the classes," he said. "The idea is that the construction can be used as a learning laboratory."
Porter says that this year's first day turned out to be much more organized than previous years. He credited an improved process for notifying students of what classes they had been assigned, mailing class lists in August.
"The biggest challenge this year will be the buses, making sure that students are on the right buses to get them home," he said. "That's a pretty normal thing for a first day of school All in all, I'd say that the first day has been pretty uneventful."