TAMPA — With all the things that could go wrong in the nation's eighth-largest school district, a quiet day in Hillsborough County sometimes feels like a minor miracle.
But that's how district officials described Tuesday's first day of the school year. Their relief was palpable.
"This was so smooth, wasn't it?" said a beaming superintendent MaryEllen Elia, as she greeted teachers at the new George M. Steinbrenner High School in Lutz.
Students there and at neighboring Martinez Middle School faced some morning delays as their buses and cars merged with those headed for the funeral of Tampa police Cpl. Mike Roberts, who died last week in a shooting incident.
Across the county, police reported a few minor fender-benders involving the district's 1,100 buses, but no injuries. By evening, thunderstorms had delayed a few buses on their routes home. And traffic jams snarled the opening of the new Strawberry Crest High School in Dover.
"There need to be some changes out there," said School Board member April Griffin, referring to the roads. "That area isn't used to so much traffic.
"But I was so pleased with transportation and the busing," she said. "I haven't been getting any calls from parents on transportation. We definitely learned from our mistakes."
Last year, parents were wrestling with changes to school bus routes, and some students stayed home due to Tropical Storm Fay.
This year, drivers rehearsed their routes in empty buses and got the chance to suggest changes if they saw potential problems.
"Because they're out there and they see it every day," Griffin said.
District officials reported a first-day enrollment of 178,781, up 5,622 students compared to last year's first day of school.
But that increase might not be very meaningful, since the storm and bus problems likely kept some students home a year ago, said spokesman Stephen Hegarty. Even with an expected increase of 10,000 students to 188,228, the district's official October enrollment would be down for a third straight year.
But countywide enrollment doesn't mean much when kids are coming in the front door. In any school, the first day is busy.
At Steinbrenner High, superintendent Elia waded through a crowd of milling students in the cafeteria.
They weren't interested in lunch, said the former teacher with a knowing smile. "They want to meet people."
But that was just about the only crowd scene the school saw Tuesday, said principal Brenda Grasso. Students seemed to know where they were going, perhaps because nearly 3,000 students and parents showed up for a recent open house, she said.
It also helps that no one is a newbie, said freshman Liz Fay. "Because everyone else is new here," she said.
"It's pretty organized," said classmate Alia Serafini.
Across the county at Sulphur Springs Elementary, students were already hard at work maintaining their B grade — up from an F the year before — and aiming for an A, said principal Christi Buell.
"I believe we'll be able to maintain our momentum because it's got a solid foundation," she said, referring to the school's outreach efforts in its low-income neighborhood. Families are proud of their school now, and so are teachers and students, she said.
Walking down the hallway, third-grader Curtis Heyward didn't need to say all of that. His smile said it all.
He held out his hand to greet a visitor, and he gave his principal a big hug.
Tom Marshall can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400.